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Evaluation Essentials: Needs Assessment

By Emily Becher, Research Associate

Do you have the appetite for another bite of evaluation jargon? Needs assessment is a phrase you may have nodded along with — and not fully understood. A common definition for a needs assessment is the process of identifying the state of how things currently are, and comparing that with how things could be. Needs assessed are usually centered around a gap that you in fact could fill or address. In our Swedish soup analogy, the needs assessment was the process of asking community members about their desire for a Swedish soup in a local restaurant and looking at other restaurants’ menus.

Needs assessments have three parts:
  1. Assessing if there is a need and what that need is. 
  2. Assessing what resources already exist to meet that identified need. 
  3. Assessing what is needed to fill the gap between need and resources. 
Needs assessments can be formal or informal, and take many forms.

You Are Constantly Informally Assessing Needs

Just like informal evaluations, such as deciding where to order pizza, informal needs assessment happens all the time. When you are out in the community, connecting with organizations and community members, people talk to you. They tell you what they need, want, and how they want to partner with you. You are constantly observing, taking in information, and finding patterns.

two stacks of flat pebbles in the shape of a bridge
You are the bridge between the community and the university.
For example, you may notice that many of the organizations you work with are experiencing an uptick in clients from a particular community. Over time, you absorb this information until you reach a threshold where you decide to take action on an issue. Maybe this looks like deciding to adapt a curriculum for a new audience or having a conversation with your supervisor to shift the priorities of your work to meet an emerging need.

If you are engaged in informal needs assessments to guide your work (and I can promise you you are), I would suggest that you document these conversations or connections on an ongoing basis.

Why? Here’s the scenario that comes to mind.

two women sitting at a table across from each other

I’m sitting in a meeting with a funder or supervisor and trying to make my case for why I want to shift my programming or develop a new curriculum. I may be deeply aware that there is a need for the shift or the new curriculum because of the accumulation of my experiences. But the person on the other side of the desk has not walked that walk with me. Having documentation of the many times this need has popped up or been observed can translate an informal needs assessment into something more formal and accessible to someone else.

Taking a More Formal Approach

In Extension Center for Family Development, formal needs assessment often begins by combing through data collected by a third party. For example, FD staff often look at Census Bureau data or County Health Rankings data in order to say, “OK, people in this community may have a need for this.” A needs assessment first step can also take the form of a literature review.

Regardless of how you start your needs assessment, I would suggest you engage in data triangulation as much as possible. Triangulation means finding additional sources of information to provide another perspective on your data that can either confirm or deny your conclusions. For example, if you’ve engaged in informal needs assessment over a period of time, it would be helpful to also look at survey data or a literature review to see if others are finding what you’re finding.

When conducting a review of the academic literature, make sure to further investigate that data with focus groups and interviews with community stakeholders. Talking to actual people gets at what the community wants, from the community’s perspective and in the community’s own voice.

A great example of this are the pilot projects and the place-based approaches currently happening in Health and Nutrition. Focus groups and key informant interviews are a bottom-up approach, and not top-down. The data from a bottom-up needs assessment are more likely to result in programming or resources that have a long-term, meaningful, positive impact.

For an another example of a bottom-up assessment, check out Wilder Foundation's Speaking for Ourselves
survey of Twin Cities immigrant and refugee populations.

To that point, even if you’ve been engaging in informal needs assessments for many years, and know a lot about the needs of the people you work with, it may be worthwhile to collect some more formal data from people you may not have heard from. It's important to make sure we’re not only talking to and creating programming for some members of the community we’re trying to reach.

One way to do this to try to conduct interviews or focus groups with people in the community you may not be reaching in your daily work to find out their needs and current resources. This transition to a more systematic approach for collecting information from a broader swath of people can help us reduce the odds that we create programming that we think will meet the needs of a large group of people, but in reality is only speaking to the needs of a small minority.

People in the shape of a pie graph
Whose needs are you really meeting?

A needs assessment that includes community voices is so important. Creating a program for people who haven’t shown that they need or want it is the same as making Swedish soup for customers who don’t want to eat it, let alone buy it. They could have told you from the very beginning what they really wanted was a new twist on the burrito, and you wouldn’t have wasted your time and some of your good reputation. Think about the last time a restaurant changed the menu in ways you didn’t like — did you go back?

On the next with “Eval with Emily,” I’m expanding my knowledge of data visualization by reading two books:
Ann is a University of Minnesota academic technologist that I heard about on episode 19 of Extension Quick Bytes Live! podcast: Don’t Call My Slides PRETTY.

'Do you need a slide?' flowchart
Ann Fandrey's "Do you need a slide?" flowchart.

I plan to report on them in the next couple of months on the Family Matters blog. In the meantime, if there are more evaluation topics you’d like to see me cover on the blog, please let me know!

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