What Should I Know About Doing a Community Needs Assessment?

Danielle LaJoie


As a former member of the Battle Creek Community Foundation’s Youth Alliance Committee (YAC) and also the Michigan Community Foundations Youth Project, I’ve seen community needs assessments from both the view of a participant in the assessment and also as the creator of the assessment. A community needs assessment is a tool through which your program can gather information from those in your community, especially young people, about what needs they have and what is most important to them. The needs assessment is unique to each program and community, but ultimately it can be used to ensure the effectiveness of your giving.

The most important starting point for a needs assessment is a conversation about the end goal. Will you use the results of the assessment to inform grantmaking decisions? Will you use it to revise your application for future grantees? Are you simply looking for results to share with other organizations and the rest of the community? Or will it serve multiple purposes? An effective needs assessment is a lot of work on the part of both the youth and the adult(s) who support them, but once it’s done and the results are analyzed, it can completely change how you go about your giving.

Another important step is deciding what your sample population will be and how to make it as representative as possible. The tried and true method is reaching youth through local schools and colleges in the areas where you’re looking to make an impact. Through this method you can ensure that you’re gathering information from the populations that you are interested in and that the youth in your program can easily take an active role in the assessment. Making connections with administrators is key here (a helpful role that adults can play!), and of course, don’t forget to involve the youth that actually attend these schools. Targeting English, Math, or other general classes in which to announce the assessment and ask students to take a few minutes and participate, makes reaching a significant portion of the student population much easier. Oftentimes when conducting these sort of assessments it is Advanced Placement or honors classes that are surveyed, but this may be counterproductive to your goal of gathering representative data for the general population of young people in a given community.

There are a myriad of different formats for a needs assessment, but I’ve found that to ensure accuracy, reach a larger portion of your sample, and make less work for YOU, an online (and usually free) survey maker such as SurveyMonkey or Google Survey is the best option. Survey questions and response options will vary depending on your region, program, type, and overall goal but a great place to start is collecting demographics such as school district, age, and grade. Single answer questions such as asking youth to rank issues in their community from most to least important, paired with free response questions such as those that give youth the space to describe their favorite thing about their community, gives you a chance to analyze response data as well as pull meaningful answers and quotes from the assessment. When it comes to actually distributing the survey or assessment, it’s great to make sure there’s a youth philanthropist present in the room. Hearing from a young person who is a peer of those taking the surveys about why this survey is important can produce responses that are more thoughtful and complete.

A final recommendation is to consider sharing the results of your assessment once it is analyzed. Keeping the wealth of information learned from this process within your program is not as helpful to your community as sharing the knowledge. The foundations, nonprofits, school boards, local government, and even parents in your community will be interested in the findings of your study. You could share the results any number of ways – through social media, a newspaper article, a presentation, or even by posting the survey on your website. Once you’ve put in the work to make a community needs assessment happen, make sure you think: how will I make our results accessible to others in my community?

Picture of About Danielle LaJoie

About Danielle LaJoie

Danielle LaJoie is a political science student at the University of Michigan interested in policy, advocacy, nonprofit work, and philanthropy. She has worked with organizations such as the Council of Michigan Foundations, Youth Philanthropy Connect, the Frieda C. Fox Family Foundation, and the National Center for Family Philanthropy, and is particularly interested in grantmaking, the youth philanthropy movement, and community foundation work.