When starting a nonprofit, one of the most essential questions you should be asking yourself is: What is the problem my nonprofit solves? Being able to answer this question is the foundation to performing a successful needs assessment.
A needs assessment is the process for determining if there is an actual, measurable need to the problem your nonprofit wishes to solve. While this is typically a business exercise, it is particularly important to nonprofit organizations who are often tackling very specific challenges of society's largest problems.
Completing an assessment of this caliber is also one of the beginning steps to preparing your business plan, determining your first objectives, and creating your core programs.
In this article we will cover the two major steps to completing your needs assessment:
Let’s dive in!
Determine the Context
Determining the context of your perceived need is the first step in the assessment process. You need to analyze questions about the community, the problem, who you want to help, in what area and of course, who your competition is.
It is important to do this before registering your nonprofit! Exploring the core of the need will guide you in finding concrete data and will provide you with a solid framework for your project scope. To make the process as simple as possible, we have broken down the process into 4 steps:
Describe the Need
While this step can be daunting, avoid the urge to drown your assessment with unnecessary information and focus in on answering these two questions:
- What is the problem you are trying to fix? Your description should include the broad problem (ex: children with cancer) and the specific problem (ex: education for children with cancer). Both aspects are important, but zeroing in on the details of what you want to solve will give context to your purpose, mission, and potential programs.
- How do I know there is a need? Start by observing the world around you. Get your friends, family, and colleagues involved by listing all of the negatives that are associated with this problem and the positive results when the problem is solved. What are the factors that contribute more to the problem to others?
If we continue with our childhood cancer example, one of the negative implications of education and childhood cancer is that they fall behind in school because of the long duration of treatments.
The positive result of when this problem is solved via your solution (ex: hospital teaching programs for grades K-12) so that when the children get better, they don’t have to repeat their school year.
Quantify the Need
Quantifying the need is about determining how many people need the service you are providing. Getting a clear estimate of how many people you plan to serve will justify the creation of your nonprofit, help with fundraising, and planning for how many volunteers or staff to hire. The question you need to ask is:
- Can you quantitatively measure how many people need your service?
Pro Tip: Be clear about the geographic location that you wish to serve. It can be as limited as a particular zip code, state, country or as large as an entire continent. Knowing where you want to serve will prepare you for how many you can serve.
Going back to our example and by reducing our search to New York State, we need to know: how many cases of childhood cancer exist currently, and how many children are behind in school, how many have been held back, and how that affects their future.
Identify Who Addresses the Need
Basically, the question breaks down to: who is working on solving the same problem? There are many ways of approaching the same need and knowing who is doing what in the same location will provide insight into where the disparities are. Ideally, your solution will fill the disparities.
One of the best ways to note this is in a simple excel sheet with the services you want to provide and compare them to who else is working in your sector.
Even if you aren’t 100% sure of what exact criteria you want, it will give you a precise idea of what programs are out there and where the gaps in service are.
If you take the example above, even though many different nonprofits are working toward the same goal, they approach the solution differently. Each is relevant and useful, even if they are somewhat different than your objective.
Having done this research beforehand will make it clear if there is need in your location and how you will need to adjust your vision to fit the market.
Of course, just because another organization is serving the same need in the same location does not mean that your nonprofit will not survive and thrive. Finding ways of working together and creating a beneficial partnership can actually make both organizations more effective.
Identify Who You Serve
Being able to identify exactly who your target audience is, or who your beneficiaries are, is the final step in completing the context section of your needs assessment. This section breaks down into one question:
- How do you define what population your nonprofit will serve?
Sometimes this question answers itself, but much of the time it requires thinking about criteria that will refine your beneficiaries into a specific group. Be careful not to keep too large of a target audience (ex: all children with cancer), because the less clear your audience is, the less impact and funding you will have.
Let’s break it down even further:
- What populations are affected by the problem you want to address? For example, we can answer this question by saying that childhood cancer is a global issue, but mainly in the United States that is lacking educational programs in hospitals.
- What populations are you best suited to serve? This is an important question that forces you to reduce your scope of work to where you are certain you will have an impact. In our example, your nonprofit should focus primarily on where the education and healthcare systems are the same as what you are familiar with. Trying to create educational programs in hospitals in South America where the systems are completely different will reduce your impact as you will be spending time trying to understand the system versus improving it.
- Where does your expertise lie? You want to focus your time and resources where they will have the largest impact, which should begin where you have the most experience. Maybe you are an expert in early childhood education, but have very little experience working with high-school coursework. This does not mean you cannot grow outside of this scope eventually, but starting where you know the impact will be the greatest will give you a strong foothold to launch your organization and gain maximum funds.
No nonprofit can solve all of the problems and every need. Being able to reduce and concentrate your efforts into a limited set of a population, location and subject will allow you to innovate new solutions to the specific challenges of your beneficiaries. Your resources will be more impactful and the most effective for the group you want to serve.
Collect & Analyze Data
Now that you have defined the context for your assessment, it is time to support it with hard data. This data will not only help with your needs assessment, but will be beneficial down the line when you are creating your business plan.
At this point, you want to use the main findings from your context analysis to lead what kind of information you should collect. Collecting data without the context will lead to unnecessary data overflow, and eat up your precious time and resources.
Data collection can happen at two levels:
Primary collection: where you collect your own data from the field (ex: interviews, focus groups, surveys)
Secondary collection: where you review the data that has already been collected by someone else (ex: research, census data, reports)
A mix of both primary and secondary data is ideal to support your vision, but it might be easier to start with secondary data. You'll know exactly what has already been published on the subject, and it will help you see more clearly what you need to support through your own observations.
Pro Tip: When working with large data sets, the golden rule is quality over quantity.
Here are some of the best ways you can primary and secondary data:
Surveys are a great way to harness the knowledge of your community and learn more about the problems your beneficiaries face on a daily basis. You can use social media, emailing campaigns or word-of-mouth to get this information. It is essential that you have a wide and diverse range of answers to analyze.
Your survey should focus on what the beneficiaries greatest problem is. If you leave this as an open-ended question, participants will have the appropriate amount of space to express themselves, giving you the varied responses you need.
You can also ask the participants to rank by importance a series of problems they may be facing. Make sure to define the problems for them and keep it short (under 10), in order to have viable and measurable data.
In-depth interviews can give you direct insight into your needs and the problems that you want to solve. You must conduct a number of interviews with everyone involved in the problem, not just the beneficiaries to have a global perspective. Be sure to ask everyone the same questions and avoid yes or no answers.
Going back to our example, you want to interview not only the children, but their community as well: parents, nurses, doctors, hospital administration, volunteers, previous teachers, etc.
Having different perspectives of the same problem might reveal new challenges (and solutions!) to you. Having the direct quotes from the community is also precious social proof that you can present to your donors, funders, or even to display on your website.
If you are looking for concrete data about your population, the census is a great place to start. It provide you with the basic demographic and population information that can help support your primary data collection techniques.
If you are looking for more specific information, don’t hesitate to dive into federal and state department information, as well as municipal and regional planning agencies that publish estimations for growth.
While the census and state information can give you an idea of the bigger picture, many of the numbers are just estimates. Use this data to support the information coming directly from the field.
Many foundations and large nonprofits publish reports on their areas of service, not only for advocacy but because they are responsible for collecting the most up-to-date numbers on their cause. Annual or financial reports are a good starting point and often provide the context and method to how the data was collected.
You can usually find this information on their websites, or specialized forums on social media. They often publish articles, infographics or summary reports on the subject that have the key facts and figures that will reduce the information to a more manageable level.
Pro Tip: Make sure you are consulting the most recent reports you can find. Any reports from over 2 years before you have begun your research can be considered to be outdated and unreliable for the current context.
Now you know how to conduct a needs assessment for your nonprofit! If your data supports your observations and context, then your nonprofit will not only survive, but thrive in the community. If not, your energy might be better spent working on how to collaborate with another organization and taking on your challenge, together.
Everyone can contribute to making the world a better place. Let us know if you have any questions about your needs assessment in the comments below!
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