There is a reason the federal government is mandating a needs assessment as part of many of the grants they administer. Efficient and impactful organizations focus their efforts on meeting the needs of the populations they serve. Their programs and services are modified based on an assessment of their clients’ needs. They also use this assessment to stop doing things that no longer serve their customers in order to free up resources to go towards more impactful activities. A needs assessment is a systematic set of procedures that are used to determine needs, examine the nature and causes of these needs, and set priorities for future action.

Community needs are always changing; therefore, organizations should conduct a formal needs assessment at least every three to five years to ensure they are truly meeting the needs of those they desire to serve.  Doing so will increase the overall impact of an organization. Regardless of your organization’s size and budget, the following six steps should occur when conducting a needs assessment.

1. Define your target population. The target population of an organization will dictate the scope and size of the needs assessment.  Prior to conducting a needs assessment, leaders should identify their ideal clients.  They should clearly define the geographical area served and what common characteristics define their ideal clients.  Do you target individuals of a certain age, socioeconomic status, life circumstance, or health condition?  Understanding this question will drive the specific method used to conduct the needs assessment.  It will also help ensure that you gather information from a representative sample of your ideal clients.

2. Assess the needs using external data. Community indicators for the population you desire to serve is a good place to start when gathering data for your needs assessment.  Use census data or other external research to understand where your target population stands on key success factors.  Depending on your mission, things could include health indicators, employment data, education data, or housing information.  Compare the current data with previous years’ data to understand if things are improving or declining for your target population.  In addition, compare your target population to the indicators of other groups to determine if their outcomes are better or worse than other groups.

3. Assess the needs using internal data.  Your organization’s data is another place to start when determining your ideal clients’ needs. Examine the outcomes of your programs and services.  Are the clients you are currently serving doing better than the total population?  If yes, great; this demonstrates how your programs and services are meeting the needs of your clients and if you served more people, you could address more community needs.  Use your own data to identify areas where your programs could be tweaked or enhanced to better meet the needs of your clients and the community.

4. Assess the needs by gathering information from your ideal clients. A good needs assessment will include an element of reaching out into the community and asking your target population what they see as their current needs. What problems and challenges are they facing and why? What services would your ideal client like to access to help them address these needs? Many methods should be used to gather this type of information. Surveys, focus groups, and interviews are all appropriate methods for gathering feedback. The type of methods you select will likely be dictated by your budget for the needs assessment, how easy it is to reach your target population, and availability of individuals to provide you feedback. I recommend a combination of at least a survey to allow for broader participation and then some focus groups to allow for more rich qualitative information.

5. Conduct a gap analysis. Once all the data are gathered, it is time to understand where your ideal population and current clients are experiencing gaps in service. Using the data, ask yourself if your programs and services adequately address your ideal population’s needs and if you are addressing them in the best way. Are there other activities you should be doing to improve client outcomes? Are there activities that you should stop doing because they are no longer meeting clients’ needs or are addressing the wrong needs?

6. Select your priorities. The identified gaps in service and unmet needs should provide the basis for future programs and services. Use the needs assessment results to hone in on the things you will focus on in  in the next few years that will have the greatest impact for your ideal clients and at the same time increase opportunities for revenues for your organization. Merge these priorities with your strategic planning process and organizational performance measures for optimal ongoing success.

These six steps provide an overview of the major activities involved in a needs assessment. Each step requires thoughtful preparation and planning for the best results possible. However, the time and effort required to conduct a needs assessment is likely to result in more efficient program, increased client and stakeholder satisfaction, and a stronger case for support for funding your programs.

If you are looking to increase your overall impact by basing your program planning on a needs assessment, Measurement Resources is here to help!  We can help you design the best needs assessment that will lead to greater impact. Our favorite part is to celebrate our clients’ success on their increased impact on the world!  We’d love to help you make data-driven decisions with confidence. Contact us today for your free 20 minute strategy session.

Want more information on how to increase funding, morale, positive press, and organizational impact? Join the Achieving Excellence Community and receive our free eBook, Ten Tips to Open the Door to More Grants (and Other Funding): Overcoming Common Mistakes in Outcomes Measurement.


Sheri Chaney Jones

Measurement Resources Company

August 2014