As a growing nonprofit, your number one priority is to continue helping those within your community. Whether it is finding homes for stray dogs, establishing a food bank program, or developing a shelter for women, it takes time and money to launch a new initiative in your organization.
Just as a for-profit company considers the market before launching a new product, a nonprofit launching a new program or project must conduct a needs assessment.
This article will give you a step-by-step guide and practical tips for executing a needs assessment. By the end, you’ll have all the information needed to launch new initiatives.
What Is a Needs Assessment For A Nonprofit?
A nonprofit needs assessment is a strategic plan that will help you answer a very important question: Is there a need for my new program, initiative, or service within the community?
This step-by-step process helps you and your team determine the problem your nonprofit is trying to solve and how you will solve it.
A needs assessment for a nonprofit organization is particularly important when starting a new project or combating challenges within your community.
There are six questions a needs assessment should answer:
Who will work on the program both internally and externally?
How many people will benefit from this program?
How much will the program cost (for both your organization and who it benefits?)?
Are there any special requirements to provide the program successfully?
Are there other nonprofits already providing these services?
Will the need for these services increase or decrease in the future [This will need to be determined using market and/or field research]?
Answering these six questions will help you write a needs assessment to determine whether your program is necessary for the community and doable for your nonprofit.
9 Steps To Conducting A Needs Assessment
Let’s unpack the steps you need to follow to conduct your own nonprofit needs assessment.
Step 1: Establishing Clear Goals for Your Needs Assessment
What’s your program or project’s goal? To write a needs assessment, start with the context. Only after, can you clearly establish the need.
Here’s how to gather the context necessary to formulate a needs statement. Answer the following questions:
What is the broad problem you are trying to solve?
Where is this problem specifically? Is it local, regional, or national?
Who needs help?
How will you help them to solve this problem?
Who is your competition?
What are the trends (shown in data research) when fixing this problem?
Let’s look at an example to make it real.
The broad problem may be helping stray dogs find homes, and the specific problem could be pit bulls in the Chicago area.
Who needs help? The pit bulls.
Who is your competition? The local humane society.
Finally, the trends over time could be the growing amount of pit bulls that need homes in your local area.
Once you establish the context, then you can focus on the need itself and the goals for fulfilling that need.
In our example, the goal may be to house 50 pit bulls over the next 6 months.
Your goals should also be connected to the resources available, any problems that may arise, and actions that take priority.
Related: To learn more about setting effective goals for your nonprofit, watch Dr. Bev Browning, author of Grant Writing for Dummies, unpack how to use S.M.A.R.T goals.
Step 2: Assembling a Cross-Functional Assessment Team
Once you establish that there is a need to launch a new initiative or solve a specific problem, you will then assemble a cross-functional assessment team.
A cross-functional assessment team is a group of individuals from different departments, areas of expertise, or functions within an organization (or sometimes including external members) who are brought together to evaluate and address a specific need or issue.
The team might include individuals with expertise in areas such as program development, finance, community outreach, data analysis, or volunteer management.
Their varied backgrounds enable the team to look at the problem from multiple angles, leading to a more effective and well-rounded assessment.
Here’s how to assemble your team:
First, designate a project team member, either you or someone else within the organization.
Choose individuals from different departments or areas within your organization who possess the identified skills. This diversity ensures a range of perspectives and expertise.
Clearly define each team member's role and responsibilities to avoid overlap and ensure that all necessary aspects of the assessment are covered.
Establish how the team will communicate (e.g., meetings, emails, collaborative tools) and how often. Regular communication is vital for coordination and progress tracking.
Get to work creating your needs assessment (see below steps.)
Step 3: Designing Your Data Collection Framework
The next step is designing a data collection framework to find the most accurate and impartial data available. Data should fall into two categories: primary and secondary data:
Primary data - This information is through interviews, surveys, and focus groups of individuals living in the community and other foundations that have similar needs.
Secondary data - Most local, municipal, and regional planning groups have census data, along with the United States Census Bureau, which includes the most up-to-date information on your area’s demographics, population, and community. Foundation reports are also a good starting point if they support a similar cause. Finally, academic studies could also give valuable data about social issues affecting your community.
Having a combination of primary and secondary data will ensure you have the most accurate and unbiased information available.
When designing your data collection framework, we recommend starting with the secondary data. That way, you can see who needs help and what has already been done by other foundations and groups. Then you can fill in the holes with interviews, surveys, and focus groups.
Step 4: Conducting Thorough Community Research
Now that you’ve done your preliminary research, it’s time to execute a plan to go out into your community and gather actionable insights.
The goal of a community assessment is to learn as much about your community as possible to fully address the problem at hand.
Lisa Rusyniak, CEO of Goodwill, shares that a community needs assessment “is how a nonprofit's leaders can evaluate the landscape from a macro perspective.”
Talk to colleagues and partners in your community who provide services similar to your own.
Who in the community is impacted by this problem?
What demographics can your nonprofit serve best?
Where specifically does this problem need to be addressed?
Is anyone else already addressing this need?
Remember that you can’t help everyone; therefore, community research will allow you to narrow the scope of your project for maximum impact.
Additionally, this information will help you spot unmet needs.
It’s likely that other organizations are addressing the issue. If other groups are already working on solving the same problem, how will your project bring something new and beneficial to the nonprofit table?
If you do community research well, you’ll be able to answer this question.
Step 5: Analyzing Data with Precision and Objectivity
With data in hand, your team needs to make meaning from it and determine the next steps.
Perhaps you learned from your analysis that the scope of your project is too broad, and you need to narrow it down. Or that your proposed project isn’t actually the best solution, and you need to pivot.
Compile your learnings into a report that summarizes the data so you can share it with internal and external stakeholders.
Pro tip: You need to find a balance between analyzing data comprehensively and not spending too much time “over-analyzing” the information. Beware of what is called “analysis paralysis.” If you find you are overthinking the data, take a step back, reassess, and then come back to the data with fresh eyes.
Step 6: Prioritizing Needs to Maximize Impact
Based on the assessment, determine which needs are most pressing.
Assess the severity of each identified need. Some issues may be widespread but not severe, while others might be critical even if they affect a smaller group.
Likewise, some issues may need immediate attention due to their immediate impact on the community.
Use the below prioritization matrix to rank needs based on severity, impact, urgency, feasibility, and alignment with your mission. Then engage your stakeholders to identify where your team will have the most impact.
Focus on the needs with the highest total scores.
Step 7: Crafting an Actionable Plan Based on Findings
By now, you’ve determined what target audience can benefit from your project. Now the main goal of creating a needs assessment is planning for the future. This means crafting a well-defined, actionable plan based on your findings.
The project manager, whether that is you or someone else in the nonprofit, should make sure the plan aligns with your organization’s mission and goals. Then you involve your key stakeholders and funders.
Step 8: Communicating Results to Stakeholders and Funders
Your needs assessment for your nonprofit is completed, so now you can communicate the results to both your stakeholders and your funders.
Make sure you communicate to everyone involved in the assessment process, as well as any high-profile community stakeholders who you may want to solicit support from later in the project. You can do this in a variety of ways:
A formal written report
An interactive presentation
A downloadable document that individuals can comment on in an interactive format
Whatever format you decide to use, you should make sure it highlights both your findings from the data and the actionable steps you will be taking to address the community’s needs.
You will also want to have the needs assessment handy for funders because you will need to write a needs statement when applying for grants from funders.
A needs assessment for a nonprofit organization is not a static, linear document. Instead, it should be monitored occasionally and adapted as needed. Your nonprofit organization should continue to assess your current programs and resources to see if there is a need for improvement as you launch your new initiative or project.
Completing a needs assessment will help you get a better understanding of the community you are looking to serve with your new initiative or project. Knowing what needs in the community are the most important can be difficult, yet a needs assessment can help you streamline the tasks by employees, managers, and stakeholders.
By completing the 10 steps above, you can improve both the productivity and efficiency of your nonprofit team when launching your new project.