Welcome to the e-learning lesson on Conducting a Community Assessment. In order to be effective in serving a community, it is important to assess and understand that community. This lesson is intended to help organizations answer some key questions about conducting a community assessment. For example: What community issues should we focus upon? Who should be involved? What questions should we ask? How do we collect the data? What do we do with the data? And, how do we share our findings and decisions with community members? Also, you will learn each of the six steps involved in conducting a community assessment: define the scope, go solo or collaborate, collect data, determine key findings, set priorities and create an action plan, and share your findings.
There are many benefits to conducting a community assessment.
The following are ways an assessment can benefit your community; you can work with other organizations in your community to identify additional benefits as an exercise to build consensus and buy-in for the process.
- There is increased understanding within the community about its needs, why they exist, and why it is important for the needs to be addressed.
- Community members have the opportunity to share how the needs impact the quality of life for the larger community.
- Community engagement is increased because members from different parts of the community are included in discussions about needs, assets, and the community’s response.
- The community’s strengths and weaknesses are identified.
- There is an inventory of the resources currently available within the community that can be leveraged to improve the quality of life for community members.
- Communities identify the asset gaps that exist in their communities.
- Community members have an increased awareness of how they can contribute to their community’s assets.
- Community organizations can use the information about community needs to assess their service delivery priorities.
- There is data for making decisions about the actions that can be taken to address community needs and how to use the available assets.
- Data can be used to inform strategic planning, priority setting, program outcomes, and program improvements.
There are six steps to conducting a community assessment.
The six recommended steps in the process of planning and conducting a community assessment are:
Step 1: Define the Scope
Step 2: Go Solo or Collaborate
Step 3: Collect Data
Step 4: Determine Key Findings
Step 5: Set Priorities and Create an Action Plan
Step 6: Share your Findings
Steps 1 through 3 should be considered an iterative and sequential planning process. Each step should be discussed independently. The information identified in one of the steps may change the approach to another step. For example, an organization may decide to collaborate with a key partner to complete the community assessment, but the key partner has to wait three months before it can start. The organization now has to decide if it wants to wait three months before beginning or decide to change the community assessment scope, look for a new partner, or move forward without a partner. Steps 4 through 6 focus on analyzing community assessment data.
CHAPTER 1: Needs and Assets
Before you can begin the six steps of conducting a community assessment, it is important to understand the terms "community needs" and "community assets." The Work Group for Community Health and Development defines community needs as "the gap between what a situation is and what it should be." They define community assets as "those things that can be used to improve quality of life." Understanding these terms will help you get started on your quest to assess what your community needs and what its assets are.
Community needs are the gaps between what a situation is and what it should be.
One goal of a community assessment is to develop an informed understanding of the gaps or needs that exist within a community and their impacts upon the community’s members. Low high school graduation rates mean that there is need to find effective ways to keep kids in school. Senior citizens are living longer but that may mean that many need more assistance to pay for medical bills or prescription drugs. In communities where pet owners want more park space but sports leagues want the same park space for playing fields, there is a need to balance competing interests.
Community needs can affect a large or small number of a community’s members. This may include families, individuals, youth, seniors, parents, businesses, community organizations, faith-based organizations – essentially, anyone who claims membership in the community. If community needs affect a large number of community members, there will likely be more support for addressing the needs.
Sometimes community needs are referred to as “community problems.” This reference should be avoided in community assessments. Framing a “need” as a “problem” immediately establishes an “us versus them” relationship that prevents collaboration and community-building.
Community assets are those things that can be used to improve quality of life.
Another goal of a community assessment is to develop a detailed analysis of community assets, or resources, that currently exist in the community and can be used to help meet community needs. Community assets include organizations, people, partnerships, facilities, funding, policies, regulations, and a community’s collective experience. Any positive aspect of the community is an asset that can be leveraged to develop effective solutions.
Two approaches can be used to identify community assets:
- Identify the assets that are already known for supporting the community need. This includes community organizations and individuals that currently provide services to community members or have provided financial support to address the need. Organizations that provide after-school programs to help youth graduate on time would be included in a community assessment focused on keeping kids in school. Clinics that offer free medical services to low-income seniors should be identified in a community assessment of seniors who need medical financial assistance.
- Build upon the experiences of other communities to highlight resources that may be available. The community assessment can identify communities with similar demographics that have successfully addressed similar needs and can be used as a blueprint for identifying assets.
CHAPTER 2: Define the Scope
With an understanding of community needs and assets, you are ready to begin your community assessment. Step 1 involves defining the scope of the assessment to be performed. Because community issues are complicated and one issue is often related to many other issues, it is easy to keep expanding the range of issues to include in your assessment. A community assessment can address several issues and their inter-relationships or it can focus on just one of the issues. To define the scope of your community assessment, you must clearly state the community needs to be assessed, the community members who will be impacted, the geographic area that will be addressed, the key questions you want answered, and the level of detail you want to include in the assessment.
Defining the scope means being clear about the issues to be addressed.
When starting to define the scope of your community assessment, you should first determine the specific needs you want to address. Choosing a focus can help develop a clear path to a successful assessment. Many community issues are related to each other, so you need to determine if you want to address several related issues or focus on just one of the issues. See the interactivity at the right for an example of related issues and how to narrow your focus.
Narrow down the key questions you want answered.
When defining the scope of the community assessment to be performed, it is important to narrow down the key questions you want the assessment to answer. Here are some examples of key questions:
- What are the basic demographics of my community? (Consider income levels, races/ethnicities, number of youth.)
- Who are the faith-based and community organizations serving people in my community? What services are they providing and to whom?
- What services are local public agencies providing, and to whom? (Include law enforcement, probation, courts, schools, workforce development.)
- What organizations are funded by foundations and government agencies to address the community issue?
- What do local residents see as the primary needs for this community?
- What are the various intervention strategies being used in my community to address the issues? Are these practices demonstrating any clear outcomes?
- Who are the leaders in my community? What key players in local government are concerned with the issues we want to address?
- What local volunteer groups (e.g., Rotary clubs) serve the community?
- Who are the people in my community who care about the issue?
- What community organizations focus on the issue? Are they delivering services in a meaningful way?
- Are there partnering opportunities with other nonprofits or faith-based and community organizations?
- What are the gaps in service to people in the community? What would a complete system look like?
- Are community members ready for a change in the issue we are trying to address?
CHAPTER 3: Determine Collaboration
Deciding the scope will highlight the choices available to you for conducting your community assessment. You can decide to “go solo” and carry the entire responsibility for completing all of the community assessment activities or you can work with community partners as a collaborative project to complete the assessment. Potential community partners include corporations, nonprofit organizations, local community organizations, foundations who provide grants to your community, universities, and government entities.
There are many benefits to collaborating.
One of the most important factors to consider is the level of resources you have to conduct a community assessment. Examine the time, effort, and human resources that are available from your various stakeholders, including staff, volunteers, consultants, and board members. Establishing collaborations will increase the resources available to conduct a quality and useful assessment.
Benefits of collaboration:
- Engages more community members in the assessment planning and implementation
- Increases access to more data sources to answer the key questions
- More resources are available to conduct the assessment and cover expenses
- Establishes relationships that will be important for leading actions identified in the community assessment findings
Sign agreements with collaborative partners.
If you decide to work collaboratively with partners to complete a community needs assessment, consider using a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the involved parties to ensure that each organization fully understands and commits to the efforts involved. An MOU outlines key responsibilities of the involved organizations. Click the icon to the right to download a sample MOU. Every MOU should include the names of the participating organization and the organization’s representative, what tasks or actions each party agrees to take, what resources each party agrees to contribute, and the deadlines or timelines associated with the partnership.
CHAPTER 4: Collect Data
Now that you have determined the scope of your assessment and decided whether or not to collaborate with a partner, you are ready to begin collecting your data. In any data collection effort, it is essential that you first set limits on how much data you will collect and analyze. Consider the amount of time and resources you have available prior to selecting any specific method or combination of methods. Prioritize your data collection needs according to what is essential to complete your community assessment and then document your data collection efforts along the way. Using a tool such as the Creating a Data Collection Plan Worksheet, which can be downloaded in this chapter, you will be able to list your key questions that you have identified in Step 1 and then identify probable sources of information.
Start with secondary sources to collect your data.
Your community assessment will be based on two types of data sources: secondary and primary. Start your data collection with secondary sources: data that has already been collected by others. Other members of your community may have the information that you are looking for. Start with local sources of information and then broaden your search as necessary. Focus on quality of data, as opposed to quantity, so you can dedicate more time to other aspects of the community assessment.
Follow secondary data with primary data to complete your collection.
Primary data is data collected by the person or group conducting the assessment. Primary source data collection methods should be used to address questions that cannot be answered by secondary sources or to gain a better understanding of a particular issue. There are several methods for collecting primary sources of data for your community assessment, including questionnaires, observation, focus groups, interviews, and case studies.
CHAPTER 5: Findings, Priorities, Action
The data collection step should result in ample data and information about your community’s needs and assets. You now need to analyze the data to identify the assessment’s key findings, set priorities based on your findings, and create an action plan to guide your post-assessment planning. Key findings serve several purposes: they validate anecdotal evidence of community needs and assets, they highlight significant trends found in the data collection process, they reveal differences across segments of the community, and they help clarify answers to the community assessment’s key questions. Set priorities as your findings are revealed and then begin to create your action plan. For each part of your plan, determine how you will measure the effectiveness of your actions. Adopt measures that help define your strategy and that you will be able to track over time.
Organize your key findings into categories.
Key findings can be organized into categories to help summarize the data. When you separate your key findings from one another, you can use them more effectively when planning your response. Common key findings categories used in community assessments include:
Overcome the challenges of priority-setting.
Priority-setting can be difficult because it requires developing consensus among community members with different opinions and views on how community issues should be addressed. Cornell University Cooperative Extension identifies four barriers to priority-setting and offers suggestions for minimizing the barriers.
The "human problem" and the difficulty of getting people to focus on key issues, decisions, and conflicts:
- Start by striving for consensus on what you are trying to accomplish by priority-setting. Why are we doing this and what are the stakes?
- Actively recognize that there is strength in differing viewpoints and don’t place viewpoints in value order.
- Build in time to allow people to reflect on information presented, digest it, and modify decisions.
The "process problem" and the challenge of managing information and ideas during a priority-setting process:
- Be very specific in defining priorities to minimize multiple interpretations.
- Make key information available prior to decision meetings.
- Beware of taking too much time to analyze information (analysis paralysis) and/or rushing to meet deadlines.
The "structure problem" and the difficulty of priority-setting across different issue areas:
- Cultivate open communication.
- Carefully nurture relationships throughout the planning process.
- Keep focus on current priorities, not precedent.
The "institutional problem" and the challenge of translating priorities into action:
- Build on existing strengths in implementation.
- Create well-defined implementation plans.
- Individuals responsible for carrying out key tasks must be committed to implementing changes.
Visit the Cornell University Cooperative Extension (2008) for more information on priority setting resources, including selected background information and techniques.
Create an action plan based on your priorities.
After setting your priorities, create an action plan based on those priorities. Your action plan should include specific actions and deadlines and should identify a person responsible for each action. The action plan is an excellent tool to set agendas for future meetings. Click the icon at the right to download a sample action plan.
CHAPTER 6: Share Findings
Now that you have taken the time to find out information about your community, you should allow the community to benefit from your findings. Community members will be more likely to support your efforts when they have a clear understanding of the work you have done and of what their community needs. The last step of your community assessment is to share what you have learned with others and to put your plan into action. To increase awareness of the findings, you can hold community meetings to share your report with community members, issue press releases to increase distribution to different media outlets, publish a brochure to summarize the key findings and actions, and put the full report on your website and the websites of your partners.
Share your findings with the community.
Here are some ways you can share your assessment findings with your community:
- Hold a community meeting and share the report with attendees. Be sure to invite stakeholders, partners, and prospective partners. Invite the potential beneficiaries of the challenges you are seeking to overcome.
- Issue press releases to local media outlets. Send follow-up notes to press contacts to establish a relationship and generate investment in your cause.
- Publish a brochure that summarizes the key findings. Use the brochures to reach stakeholders and spread the word that you’re invested in finding solutions – you’ve explored the assets in your community that can be leveraged to change the problem you want to address.
- Put the full report on your website. Publicize access to the full report through the resources listed above.
You should now have the knowlegde and tools you need to conduct a successful community assessment. Using the steps outlined here should put you on the right path to serving your community and its needs. Thank you for taking the time to learn about conducting a community assessment.
Access these resources for more information about community assessments.
Putting the Pieces Together: Comprehensive School-Linked Strategies for Children and Families: Chapter 2 - Conducting a Community Assessment
North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, Learning Points Associates
Community Assessment Tools: A Companion Piece to Communities in Action – A Guide to Effective Service Projects
Preparing for a Collaborative Community Assessment
Iowa State University, University Extension
Survey and Community Assessment Tools
Underage Drinking Enforcement Training Center, A Project of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation
Community Tool Box, Part B Community Assessment, Agenda Setting, and Choice of Broad Strategies
Work Group for Community Health and Development, University of Kansas