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Heather Stombaugh

About Heather

Best Practices in Needs Assessments: Six Practical Steps

Why should grant writers care about needs assessments? Do we really have time for these time-consuming and often challenging projects?

Grant writers must care about needs assessments because the results of a properly conducted, science-based assessment can serve as the foundation for effective grant seeking and capacity building.

Why? Let’s think about what a needs assessment does. Here’s a simple yet illustrative graphic:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Now, let’s think about what grant reviewers want to see in our proposals:

  • Evidence for the both the need and the solution
  • Capacity to implement the solution
  • Credibility of leadership and organization
  • Sustainability of the nonprofit and programs

Clearly, needs assessments can be instrumental in positioning your nonprofit for grant seeking success. But to provide stakeholders with clear and compelling results, we must implement science-based, comprehensive needs assessments. This is critical. Simply sending out a 10-question survey to a pre-selected group is insufficient. Instead, find out what scholars are doing in your field. Gather local data using multiple methods. Use a random sample of participants from different groups. And make friends with statisticians and librarians at your local university or college — they can bring a wealth of experience and credibility to your work.

The following steps are based on best practice methods for needs assessment from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, as well as scholarly research on public health and survey development/analysis. By following these six steps, you can implement a timely and cost-effective needs assessment for your organization.

Step 1: Brainstorming and Planning

Gather your team of key stakeholders who will serve as a needs assessment task force. This group should include people in leadership, service delivery staff, volunteers, and consumers. Ask the following questions regarding the problem you would like them to address with the needs assessment.

  • Frequency – How often does it happen?
  • Duration – How long do the effects last?
  • Scope – How many people does it affect?
  • Severity – How seriously are people affected?
  • Perceptions – How do people feel about the problem?

You can use a Modified Delphi Technique or other validated method for brainstorming. For more information about the Modified Delphi Technique — a simple meeting facilitation method that gives everyone equal voice in brainstorming—go to the University of Illinois Extension Office.

Step 2: Guiding Documents

Gather feedback from your task force. Analyze it. Write up the results as the guiding document for the rest of your needs assessment work. Publish the guiding document for your task force and key stakeholders.

Step 3: Secondary Data Collection

Secondary data collection is defined as the process of finding information relevant to your question from existing sources. You must collect secondary data to support the questions you ask in your surveys, focus groups, or interviews, and you must dig through the literature to understand the state of the research evidence in your subject area.

Research electronic sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or SAMHSA or the Department of Education—whatever federal and state sources are applicable to your topic. Look for their best practice databases as they will provide excellent references. Then, dig into the literature. Journals add thousands of peer-reviewed articles every month to the database at PubMed. This is an essential resource for secondary data collection. Use a bibliography to keep track of the results of your secondary data collection. (This will be essential in Step 6.)

Step 4: Primary Data Collection

Primary data collection is the process of collecting qualitative (anecdotal) and quantitative (measurable) data directly from the people you serve. This can be accomplished using:

  • Written or electronic surveys
  • Key informant interviews
  • Moderated focus groups

I recommend using a set of surveys as the primary means of collecting local data. I use key informant interviews and focus groups to tease out additional information once I have reviewed the survey results. This method can provide you with deeper insights than the survey alone can provide.

You can use electronic or written surveys—or both—as your main source of collecting quantitative data. It’s good practice to send these surveys to both current and potential consumers because they bring different perspectives to your work and your results. Also, consider three (or more) groups who may provide a different but important worldview that will lend additional validity to your results.

Once you have identified the groups you will survey, gather mailing lists. Unless the groups are very small, you should select only a random sample of these groups; you do not need to survey everyone to get the information you need. While befriending a statistician can be exceptionally helpful here (my chosen method), there are free random sample calculators available online.

In practical terms, your survey should conform to the following best practices:

  • Should take ten minutes or less to complete
  • Ask participants questions about k nowledge, attitude, behavior, & satisfaction
  • Include demographic questions (age, race, ethnicity)
  • Use open-ended, multiple choice, and Likert scales
  • Include a cover letter describing the survey’s purpose, signed by the person in charge (a credible source)
  • Include four pages or fewer (including cover letter) with clear, brief instructions
  • Use a green or blue colored paper, printed on both sides, stapled in one corner
  • Include postage-paid return envelopes
  • Use an incentive such as a gift certificate, a one-dollar bill with every survey, a link to a sweepstakes drawing, etc.

If you would prefer to use an electronic survey, just know they do not guarantee a higher return rate. In fact, I always get better returns from paper surveys than electronic ones. But they are convenient and easy for some audiences to use. One reputable electronic options is SurveyMonkey. For an annual subscription, these sites can also help you analyze the data you receive.

Once you have the results from your surveys, you will see common themes. You can use key informant interview and focus groups to dig deeper. For key informant interviews, select a sample of 7-11 community leaders or consumers (sometimes more, depending on the scope of your work). Get permission to record the interview, use a set of pre-defined questions, and let the interviewees do most of the talking. Keep written notes for all your interviews.

Focus groups are similar but conducted with heterogeneous groups of seven to nine people (e.g. all mothers with small children vs. a second group with fathers of small children). These are moderated by an independent, trained facilitator and are focused on a specific topic. Use focus groups to probe deeper into survey findings or to ask questions that would be difficult to ask or answer in a survey. Focus group members should be encouraged to talk openly about their opinions and interact with other members. Incentives are essential and drive participation. Also, find a volunteer who will take written notes and run a digital recorder during the interaction; the facilitator’s job is to mediate and guide the conversation.

Step 5: Data Analysis

Now that you have collected all your data, it’s time to analyze the results. You will likely need to do both qualitative and quantitative analysis. Again, find a statistician to help you with this project. There are many public health programs across the country with epidemiology students who are required to complete practicums and internships. Find one!

For qualitative analysis:

  • Secure a transcript of the interaction.
  • Review the transcript for patterns/themes.
  • Collect quotes to support each identified pattern or theme.
  • Write a summary of your findings focused on the key themes.

For quantitative analysis:

  • Tally responses for descriptive results (describing your participants).
  • Analyze the mean/ median/mode (averages) and correlated data (when results from one question are directly linked to results from one or many other questions. These can be used to predict, in general, how others would respond).
  • Define rankings and trends identified in the results.

Write up the results and put them into graphics. This will set the stage for the final step.

Step 6: Dissemination

Step 6 is essential: you must publish the results of your work. Why?

  • To improve community understanding
  • To increase support
  • To advocate for new policies or initiatives
  • To encourage community involvement and action

You can disseminate your results through multiple venues including formal written reports, cases for support, community meetings, media campaigns, and social media. The manner in which you publish the results will depend on costs, time, human resources, and the potential impact of your work. Of course, you should not only use needs assessment results in your grant proposals but also in program design, evaluation, and strategic planning.

While the process takes time, the results of a properly implemented needs assessment can pay enormous dividends for nonprofits. Consider what elements you can do, find external help, convene a motivated task force, and implement a needs assessment that yields credible results. You can do it!



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  1. […] I stated in a CharityChannel article about best practices in needs assessments, “The results of a properly conducted, science-based […]

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