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Conducting a community needs assessment

The goals of your organisation will be set by the interplay between the services and products you are equipped to provide and the needs of the community you serve.

Communities come in many different forms and all will have different ways of approaching their goals. Once you have gone through the processes of identifying and understanding your community and identifying its assets and resources, you will need to establish how you can best serve its needs.

You may think you know what your community needs. You may even be right. Nevertheless, you must still consult the community first to find out what it wants - and you must do this genuinely, with a mind open to change.

What the community wants may not always be the same as what it needs - your job may be to persuade it that it has needs it hadn't turned its mind to - and if there are large differences between wants and needs you need to know about that, too. You may decide to change your direction, or you may decide to spend more on community education, but you must establish a clear link between your goals and the goals of the people you want to involve.

Finding out what your community says it needs is incredibly important because unless there are common goals, you may be unable to gain committed and motivated volunteers, you may lack clients, and you will have little support from funders and stakeholders

There are resource implications to consultation, and you may have to balance your ideals with your finances, but consulting your community can be done in many ways. Look for a process that will both give you the information you want and move you along the way to finding solutions within your present resources. Questionnaires and surveys can help (see the attached example), focus groups and open-ended investigations are better, and best of all is a forum made up of your clients and stakeholders where you can think things through productively as a community.

Interviews and background research
Begin by talking to a few of the influential people who know about the area - the heads of community groups, local personalities and officials.
Ask them to identify:

  • the important issues for the community and what they think is needed.
  • who else should be consulted and where the information you want is held.

If time is very limited, if the issues are really clear, or if you can't afford the resources to go further, this may be all you need to do as you will probably have already developed a reasonable insight into your community's needs.

If you are able to proceed, however, be aware that leaders aren't always in close touch with the situation on the ground. Even when they are up-to-date, they may have their own interests to serve and their own barrows to push so their perspectives may not be universal.

Remember that the best ideas can spring from the collision of many different positions.

See what research has already been done, with this community or in other similar communities in Australia or overseas. What agencies would hold data on this area? Check government records. Do a thorough search on the Internet. Look through the local paper. You don't want to reinvent the wheel (and you don't want to accept previous data uncritically, either).

Surveys
If there isn't any existing research done about your area, you may want to carry out a survey of your own. You're not doing an academic research project, you just want a guide to action, so don't fret too much about statistical accuracy. A survey - handed out at a street stall, posted out (if you have a good mailing list), delivered in local mailboxes, or inserted in your magazine - can give you an idea of how people feel about the issues that concern you. Give a copy to anyone who shows an interest.

Survey design will depend on your aims. If you want to establish that there is community support for a particular position you will go about it differently than if you are simply seeking a feel for the priorities of members of the community.

Focus groups
If you can gather a selection of people from your membership base, potential members and other stakeholders around a table and take them through the options for your present and future work, you will throw a real light on your operations and your priorities.

Start with a list of issues, and have a facilitator in the room to stop people wandering too far from the list (unless they're doing it particularly brilliantly). See if people agree, but don't stay around on any one point until they do or you'll never get through.

Ask:

  • What are your main concerns?
  • What groups in particular have these problems?
  • Do you know where to find any previous data on these issues in this area?

Focus groups are good at finding out about perceptions, but not so good at finding out facts. Don't undercut the opinions expressed by your group, but don't carry your positive attitude as far as not checking their statements before taking action.

You may want to tape focus groups. If you don't you will have to take extensive notes, which may interrupt the discussion.

Groups that have no resource limitations - sometimes keep holding focus groups until no new insights come up and you've heard everything before, but you're unlikely to be that well-funded or to have that much time. Go forward when you're so well provided with new ideas that you have all you can handle.

Community forums
If you want support from the community you're addressing it's important that the community feels an ownership of the process - that they feel they've been genuinely consulted and that their views have been heeded. Try and get your stakeholders and your partners together to thrash out what's needed, who should do it and how you should work together. The experience and expertise that you can accumulate in a room full of administrators, members and advocates can be very effective in identifying needs and remedies.

On the other hand, this is a lot of work. If you're contemplating taking this on, look around for partners -people with a common interest in some part of the field. What resources can they contribute? Use the process to build relationships and to build trust.

Again, you will probably want to tape these discussions.

Review

When you have all the information gathered in that you can use, line up the expressed needs and work out your priorities.
Prevalence: is the need widespread?
Severity: is the need serious or only a minor inconvenience?
Selectivity: is it expressed most by a particular segment of the community?
Possible interventions: Some needs are going to be very real but out of your reach; you will have to pick out the needs that your organisation is capable of addressing.

Pull the common factors and the surprising insights out of your research and see how they line up with your previous assumptions of what your particular community needs Think about what new partners have emerged in the course of the consultation process, and how you might be able to work with them.

At the end of the process you should have more than a cold set of statistics - you should have a picture of the agreed needs you should be addressing to best service your community, and a story about how you will go about dealing with them. A story that you can use to convince, motivate and inspire your volunteers, your staff, and your funders.

Translate this story into a set of new goals and strategies within your strategic and business plans. Plans that you can now be more confident of producing results that your community actually needs and wants.


Sample Community Needs Survey

The (insert name of your group) is conducting a survey about the current and future needs of (your group) .

(Name of your group) has brought together supportive individuals and organisations and have had many achievements - and some defeats. It is now time to stand back and look at what we are doing. Our organisation has been affected by many changes - political changes, economic changes, social changes - and we may need to change in response.

(Your group) has worked with (insert name of the community you service) for (insert time established eg over 30 years) to (insert your purpose eg identify social issues and gaps in services or to provide sporting opportunities for young people) .

To help us move forward we would like to hear from you about what you want for our organisation.

After the information gathering is completed a report will be circulated.

Thank you for working with us to make (your group) better service all our needs.

Questions

  1. How would you like to see (your group) change in the next five years?

  2. Are there needs or gaps in our programs and services that are not being met at the moment?

  3. Are there any changes taking place in (your group) that concern you? What are they? What might be done about those changes?

  4. What programs do you know of that people are trying in other places that we should try in (your group)?

About you

We would just like to know a little about who has answered our questionnaire. We promise that the data will be used for no other purpose and will be destroyed after the survey is completed.

(Add here any information that you would like to collect about the respondents eg Age, Gender, Postcode, Years of Association with your group etc)

Anything else?

Please feel free to provide any additional comments that you think will help improve our group:

This survey can be
Mailed to: (your address)
Faxed to: (your fax)
Emailed to (your email address)

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Julia Gillard at the Communities in Control Conference

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