NPL 473  Nonprofit Leadership

Needs Assessment


Internally-looking organizations can, perhaps, meet their mission by assessing the programs and evaluating their organization.  But externally-focused organizations (community-based organizations, client-service focused organizations) need to query their base about their needs if they are to meet their mission.  And that is different than assessment/evaluation, where the objectives are already given.


The term, “needs assessment,” however is a term of art—it has many different meanings, depending on the use to which it is being put.  For some, it is part of an organization’s business plan (see  In that case, the purpose of a "needs assessment" to determine if there is really a need in your community for the services you propose to offer.  In that case, one would ask questions like

  • Is there another nonprofit that is providing or may provide the program or service you are considering?
  • Who is your audience? And, what is its demographic profile? Where do they live? How do they get around (public transport etc)? How many are they?
  • What are this group's needs and desires?  You may think they need one thing but they may actually need and want something else.

For others, it is a process of leading the Board of an organization through a reflection on the Mission and goals of the organization, and assessing their satisfaction with the organization’s objectives and how well they achieve the goals.  In this case, one might go through a technique commonly used in business, called a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats).

There are many ways to perform a needs assessment. You can gather data about the community and other nonprofit organizations that are working on similar problems. You can do an actual survey by phone, mail, or door to door, interview leaders in the community, and use focus groups. Using a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats), commonly used in business, can be useful and provides an easy-to-follow format. This chapter focuses primarily on the issue of needs assessment for community-based and client-service based organizations.  In these cases, the interesting question is what do the users (the community or the clients) need, and why.  This is a question that is necessarily driven by the users’ perceptions (and so the Board and staff are not reliable sources).  But it also requires some analysis to assess what the users are saying (so it is not the same as a market analysis).  For example, one must distinguish between “needs” and “wants,” even if the user does not; and even though an addict is certain that a “fix” is what is needed, he/she is wrong.

Iowa State University Extension lists five techniques for needs assessment for community groups and organizations (

1.      Existing Data Approach:  Frequently, other agencies in the community (or in the larger community) gather and report data which describe the community.  The data may be gathered regularly (“series data”) or only once (“special report” data).  The various units of government (city, county, state, federal) gather data on a wide range of activities (demographics, business and industry, housing, crime, health).  Many private organizations also do this (United Way, Children’s Defense Fund, Chamber of Commerce, Industry Trade Groups). 

·        Advantages

o       Makes use of already existing statistical data

o       Can be done relatively quickly and inexpensively

o       Easy to track changes over time

·        Disadvantages

o       Indicators often are indirect and may not measure exactly what is desired

o       Available information may be dated

o       Usually does not include data on perception and dispositions

  1.  Attitude Survey Approach
    Collect data from a representative sample of the community by personal interviews, telephone surveys, hand-delivered questionnaires or mail questionnaires. If the sample is properly constructed, the responses will be representative of the whole community.

·        Advantages

o       Valid and reliable data

o       Represents the attitudes of a broad range of individuals

o       Can obtain information on opinions as well as behavior

·        Disadvantages

o       May be more costly than other approaches - dollars and volunteer time

o       Questionnaire construction requires particular skill

o       Requires technical skill in sampling and statistical analysis

  1. Key Informant Approach
    Well-positioned people (“key informants”) are interviewed (by questionnaire or face-to-face) to obtain their impressions of community needs.  Key informants may be community leaders and decision makers, but they may also be less well-known people who keep their finger on the pulse of a community (newspaper beat reporters, pastors/ministers, some shopkeepers or bartenders or beauty shop operators, etc.)  The information must be collated and analyzed before it is reported to the community.

·        Advantages

o       Quick and inexpensive

o       Questionnaire usually easy to prepare

o       Contact in the information gathering process may help provide legitimation for later implementation

·        Disadvantages

o       Information likely to be biased - age, occupation, education, income, location, in-group identity

o       Information is typically from "providers" of services as opposed to "customers" of services

o       Information is not necessarily representative of the entire community (no scientific sampling used)

  1. Community Forum
    A public meeting(s) is held to discuss the needs facing the community, the priority of the needs, and what can be done about these priority needs. All members of the community are encouraged to attend and express their concerns.  A particular form of this approach is called a “Delphi Technique.”  This is a three-stage approach.  In the first stage, everyone attending is encouraged to brainstorm as many ideas as possible.  In the second stage, the group discusses the entire list and then each votes for his/her top 5.  The votes are tallied, and a list of the top 20 or so is generated.  In the third round, the new list is discussed and then each votes for his/her top 3.  The votes are tallied and a list of the top 10 or so is generated.

·        Advantages

o       Inexpensive and easy, although facilitator will need particular skill in managing group dynamics

o       Input comes from a wide range of people

o       May have good public relations as well as planning benefits

·        Disadvantages

o       Those who attend may not be representative of total community; special interests may even pack the meeting 

o       Participants may try to use the forum as a gripe session (people who are satisfied have less incentive to turn out)

o       Public meeting may heighten expectations beyond what the program may reasonably expect to deliver

  1. Focus Group Interview
    One or more group(s) of people selected for their particular skills, experience, views, or position are asked a series of questions about a topic or issue to gather their opinions. Group interaction is used to probe their responses to each question. For more details on the Focus Group technique, see the notes from URBS 4/502

·        Advantages

o       moderately easy to undertake

o       social interaction in the group produces freer and more complex responses

o       the moderator can probe for clarification and solicit greater detail

o       responses have high face validity due to the clarity of the context and detail of the discussion

·        Disadvantages

o       requires highly skilled moderator

o       can be difficult to schedule a time convenient for participants

o       individual responses are not independent of one another

o       because the group is hand-selected, the results will not be representative of the general population


Once you have gathered the information for your needs assessment, it still must be analyzed.  Jane Davidson’s Evaluation Methodology Basics:  The Nuts & Bolts of Sound Evaluation (Sage Publications, 2005) provides useful guidance:

  1. Identifying “users”

a.       In general, people for whom something changes (or should change) as a result of a particular activity

b.      Sometimes, goal is to prevent change.

c.       Distinguish between “upstream stakeholders” and “downstream users”

II.                 Needs vs. wants

a.       Need is something without which unsatisfactory functioning occurs.

b.      Want is conscious desire without which dissatisfaction (but not necessarily unsatisfactory functioning) occurs.

c.       Needs are context-dependent (i.e., few needs are absolute)

d.      Types of needs

                                                               i.      Conscious vs. unconscious

                                                             ii.      Met vs. unmet

                                                            iii.      Performance needs vs. instrumental needs

e.       Needs assessment method

                                                               i.      Identify & document performance needs (“Severity documentation”)

1.      Document extent (quantitative data)

2.      Investigate individuals in need (qualitative data)

3.      Consider additional performance needs

                                                             ii.      Investigate the underlying causes of performance needs (“diagnostic phase”)

1.      Develop “Logic Model” (cause-effect relations linking goals to actions/inputs to outputs/outcomes, resulting in desired outcomes)

2.      “If this action is taken, will address this underlying need, which should solve this problem”

3.      Makes assumptions specific, allows them to be challenged and tested

4.      Complete model should include all major needs identified

                                                            iii.      Strategy for identifying performance needs (2x2 table)

1.      Met/Unmet needs X Conscious/Unconscious needs





© 2004 A.J.Filipovitch
Revised 1 April 2008