Community Needs Assessment
Community Needs Assessment
- Mary OhmerMary OhmerUniversity of Pittsburgh
- and Emily UnderwoodEmily UnderwoodUniversity of Pittsburgh
Community assessments in macro social work practice focus on identifying the needs and assets of a community that can be mobilized for community improvement and change. Macro social workers engage with residents and community members as partners in conducting and utilizing the findings from community assessments. The first section describes the values and principles underlying community assessments. This is followed by a discussion of approaches for conducting community assessments. The overall approach to community assessment discusses the shift in community assessment from focusing mainly on needs and deficits to understanding both community assets and needs. Two specific approaches to community assessment are then described in greater detail, including the consensus organizing approach to conducting a community analysis and the asset-based community development approach to conducting asset mapping. This section is following by an overview of the key methods for collecting and reporting data for a community assessment.
- Macro Practice
Updated in this version
Content and references updated for the Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work.
Community Assessment Values and Principles
In the field of social work, conducting a community assessment can be a valuable exercise in creating positive impacts for both individuals and their communities. The information that is gathered from a community assessment can be used to address important issues in subsystems including the physical environment, social services, healthcare, education, transportation, and education, while also improving community coping and problem solving (Beverly et al., 2005). Community assessments of this nature incorporate many of the values of the social work profession including service, social justice, the importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence (NASW, 2017). This approach to community assessment allows community members to participate in decision-making processes around issues related to economic opportunity, resources, social supports, and policy making. At the same time, community assessments can also enhance current relationships and efforts to address these types of issues in targeted communities. Community assessments can also serve as a method for analyzing current systems and as the basis for strategic planning and developing interventions (Beverly et al., 2005). Community assessments are inclusive approaches to macro social work because they take into consideration both individual and communal experiences and knowledge in order to empower communities and enhance community outcomes.
Approaches for Conducting Community Assessments
Community assessments help social workers identify the needs and the resources in a community that can be mobilized to improve quality of life. While social workers historically have focused more on identifying the “needs” of the community in a general sense, we have shifted over time to understanding the needs from the perspective of community residents, stakeholders, and others impacted by specific issues. Furthermore, instead of focusing only on deficits, the lens has widened to identify and include community assets or resources that can be leveraged to create change. This change was partly a result of social work scholars and organizers called on social workers and others in the helping professions to change their ways. Specifically, Specht and Courtney (1994) in their book, Unfaithful Angels: How Social Work Has Abandoned Its Mission, criticized social workers for focusing too much on peoples’ “needs” and “problems” and for using mostly clinical and psychotherapeutic interventions to address the needs of mainly white, middle-class people. They called on social workers to become partners with communities to address systemic change through social justice and community-level interventions with underserved and disenfranchised people. Around the same time, Kretzmann and McKnight (1993) argued that the negative images often produced by focusing only on needs creates a map of the community that is often perceived as the whole truth; however, these images are only part of the truth about the actual conditions of a troubled community. Assessing only needs creates an incomplete picture of a community that leads to problem-focused solutions instead of solutions that leverage the assets and strengths of the community (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993). The former approach takes the power away from the community, wherein they see themselves as having special needs that can only be addressed by outsiders with professional expertise to deal with their problems. Kretzmann and McKnight (1993) argue for an alternative path that focuses on community strengths and assets that leads to policies, solutions, and interventions that focus on the capacities, skills, and assets of lower-income people and their neighborhoods. Table 1 summarizes and compares the differences between traditional needs assessments that focus more on problems and community assessments that examine assets and needs.
Table 1. Comparing Needs Assessments to Community Needs and Resources Assessments
Traditional Needs Assessment
Assessment of Community Needs and Assets
Understanding community needs
Understanding community history, culture, and characteristics (needs and assets)
Identify extent and severity of problems
Identify and utilize capacities and strengths
Data to help agency develop and shape programs
Data to understand relationships and networks leveraged to address issues
Identify and utilize current services available to address needs and problems
Identify and engage internal and external community resources
Focus mainly on internal factors impacting the community’s problems and issues
Focus on both internal and external factors impacting community needs and capacities
Data, information, and connections to help agency raise resources
Data, information, and relationships to strengthen leadership & solutions
Source: Adapted from Ohmer and DeMasi (2009).
According to the Community Toolbox (n.d.), needs are the things that are missing or the gap between what a community is and what it wants to become. Needs can be concrete things needed by people, groups, or the entire community, such as clean water or fresh produce; or they can be social needs like more participation in local organizations or political needs such as increased voter registration. Community resources or assets are the people, organizations, institutions, physical assets, and relationships that can be leveraged to improve communities (Community Toolbox, n.d.; Ohmer & DeMasi, 2009). Community resources include the capacities and skills of people, the things that are working and creating quality of life, strong social connections, community wealth, and effective local organizations (Community Toolbox, n.d.; Homan, 2016; Ohmer & DeMasi, 2009). Resources or assets can include individuals, organizations and institutions, buildings, landscapes, equipment—anything that can be used to improve the quality of life (Community Toolbox, n.d.).
Several arguments can be made for focusing on both needs and resources, including two in particular. First, this approach allows for a deeper understanding of the community, including the community’s unique history, culture, social relationships, political and economic structures, as well as conflicts and sources of tension and disagreement. Understanding how the community works is key to developing strategies for community change. Second, community residents and stakeholders are encouraged to understand their own strengths and how to leverage them to address their needs. This is an empowering approach that builds more sustainable community capacity. Third, the process more easily allows residents and key stakeholders to develop priorities as well as realistic action plans for program or system improvements (Community Toolbox, n.d.; Ohmer & DeMasi, 2009). Two specific approaches for community assessments, the consensus organizing approach and asset-based community development, represent the overall frameworks discussed in this section.
The Consensus Organizing Approach to Assessment: The Community Analysis
Low-income communities have been surveyed and studied over the years by outside agencies and government (Ohmer & DeMasi, 2009). Sometimes residents are part of the process, but many other times they are not. Needs assessments can be important tools to identify issues in communities, but they too often focus on community weaknesses versus strengths. Community needs assessments and surveys may also be used by agencies to support or justify the status quo and their programs, or demonstrate needs so that the agency can secure funding (e.g., a survey that shows a high incidence of domestic abuse in a community, which is then used by an agency to get funding for domestic violence programs).
Consensus organizing focuses on facilitating trusting relationships among residents and between residents and external resources based on mutual interests and values. This process leads to enhancing the community’s bonding and bridging social capital and their capacity to address some of their most difficult problems (Eichler, 2007; Ohmer & DeMasi, 2009). Consensus organizing has been used over the past 40 years to facilitate resident-driven initiatives to advance social justice and equity around a range of community issues, including equitable development and violence prevention (Beck et al., 2012; Brown & Stalker, 2020; Eichler, 2007; Ohmer, 2016, 2020; Ohmer & DeMasi, 2009; Ohmer & Owens, 2013). Macro social workers using consensus organizing implement an in-depth community analysis to find out “how a community works” and to build relationships with and engage residents and other community stakeholders (Ohmer & DeMasi, 2009). Some of the most important components of this type of community analysis are identifying people in the community and finding out their self-interest—that is, what they care about and what kinds of community problem-solving efforts they might be motivated to get involved in. One of the distinguishing characteristics about that community analysis is that both internal resources and external resources are assessed, focusing not only on the assets and potential contributions of community residents and stakeholders but also on the potential assets and contributions of external stakeholders and resources. In other words, the assessment uses a parallel process to leverage resources and assets inside and outside the community to address community-identified needs and issues (Ohmer & DeMasi, 2009). While many needs assessments are directed by outside agencies, consensus organizing flips this approach by empowering residents to identify their owns needs and assets and by matching residents with outside resources who also care about and have a self-interest to address similar issues. Needs assessments and other kinds of surveys and analyses can be valuable tools to understand a community; however, in consensus organizing, these tools are developed and implemented with the community (Ohmer & DeMasi, 2009).
The community analysis has three major components: (a) understanding a neighborhood’s history, culture, characteristics, strengths and demographics; (b) understanding and building relationships with the internal resources in a neighborhood, that is, the people who live, work, provide services, and operate businesses there; and (c) identifying, understanding and building relationships with external resources, that is, the businesses, government officials, institutions, and philanthropists that can contribute to community change that is directed by the community (Ohmer & DeMasi, 2009). These components are explained in Table 2.
Table 2. Steps in Conducting a Community Analysis
Methods and Questions
Community History, Culture and Characteristics
Make initial contacts and get an overall picture of the community’s history, current conditions, assets, resources, and social, economic, physical, and cultural characteristics
Physical boundaries and characteristics
Housing, businesses, schools, institutions, grassroots community groups
A picture of who lives in the community
Places where people gather (e.g., playgrounds, street corners, community centers).
Political activity in the neighborhood (e.g., involvement of representatives, voting)
One-on-one interviews and focus groups with residents and key stakeholders
Demographic data, including census data and neighborhood profiles
Visual picture of the neighborhood by conducting walking and windshield surveys.
Historical and current information on the community websites, social media sites, newspapers
Attending community meetings, forums, and events
Other sources of information suggested by residents and key stakeholders that they believe is important to understanding their community
Internal Community Resources
Understand the needs and assets of the community by engaging with key internal community resources to find out what they care about (their self-interest) and their ideas for solutions to local problems:
Business and Property Owners
Social Service Agencies
Large Institutions (e.g., schools, hospitals, large employers located in neighborhood
Community Organizations (e.g., community development corporations, tenant organizations, neighborhood associations, block clubs, etc.)
Mainly through one-on-one interviews and focus groups with residents and key stakeholders. Questions can include:
What is your overall perception of the neighborhood? What do you think are the community’s strengths and/or assets and which are most important to you?
What do you think are the community’s major weaknesses, and/or issues? Which of these issues do you care about the most?
How do you think the community’s strengths could be used to deal with these issues?
What are the obstacles to getting things done in the community? Can you tell me about a time when the community overcame obstacles to get something done?
What activities are you involved with and why?
Do you know anyone else who cares about the same issues as you do?
External Community Resources
Understand and engage external community resources to find out about their involvement with the community, and how what they care about aligns with the community’s interests:
Corporations (e.g., large employers, the media, and financial institutions)
Government (e.g., local, state, and federal agencies and elected officials)
Philanthropic institutions (e.g., foundations, United Way)
Larger External Institutions not located in the Neighborhood (e.g., Universities, Hospitals)
Mainly through one-on-one interviews and meetings with external stakeholders. Questions can include:
What is your connection, if any, to this community?
What is your overall perception of the neighborhood targeted for our program? What do you think are the community’s strengths and/or assets?
What do you think are the community’s major weaknesses, and/or issues? Which of these issues are the most important to you?
How do you think the community’s strengths could be used to deal with these issues?
What is your experience, if any, doing work with this community? What are the obstacles to getting things done in the community? Can you tell me about a time when obstacles were overcome to get something done?
Do you know anyone else who cares about the same issues as you do?
Source: Adapted from Ohmer and DeMasi (2009).
Asset-Based Community Development
Asset-based community development (ABCD) is a method for understanding a community that requires participation of the community’s residents. The focus of this type of assessment is to “empower communities to identify and address their own problems through the assets that are available to them” (Blickem et al., 2018, p. 2). Kretzmann and McKnight (1996) developed this alternative strength-based method of assessment in response to the more traditional models which focus on identification of community deficits. The goal of ABCD is capacity building based on existing resources and individual strengths (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996). This shift in perspective can make a significant difference in the resources needed to address community issues as well as the efficiency by which they are utilized. Moreover, this approach reaffirms the work that is already being done in neighborhoods (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996). Through its primary method of asset mapping, ABCD places an emphasis on creating sustainable networks through person-centeredness and relationship building and “aiding the process of translation of experiential knowledge into a communally available resource” (Harrison et al., 2019, p. 4).
According to its creators, asset-based community development process relies on the following characteristics:
Community development strategy starts with what is present in the community, the capacities of its residents and workers, the associational and institutional base of the area—not with what is absent, or with what is problematic, or with what the community needs. Development strategy concentrates, first of all, upon the agenda building and problem-solving capacities of local residents, local associations, and local institutions. One of the central challenges for asset-based community developers is to constantly build and rebuild the relationships between and among local residents, local associations, and local institutions.(Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996, p. 27)
With these characteristics ideas in mind, ABCD draws upon psychological and social theories in determining the criteria which define “assets” and for categorizing the assets into three levels: (a) primary building blocks or personal assets (includes motivation and self-efficacy); (b) secondary building blocks/collective assets (e.g., parks, libraries, grocery stores), and (c) potential building blocks, or assets which originate and are controlled external to the community (e.g., social welfare access) (Harrison et al., 2019). Additionally, social capital, such as connectedness, social networks, and reciprocity are all important considerations to be included in the asset map. Putnam (1993) defines social capital as a form of social organization that includes trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions. Putnam (2000) later characterized social capital in two ways: bonding social capital, which is based on relationships of mutual trust found between neighbors; and bridging social capital, which is based on connections between residents and individuals and organizations external to the neighborhood. Both of these forms of social capital are important to include when assessing community assets and strengths.
Asset maps can be created using multiple strategies, including engaging community members around a map, conducting focus groups or interviews with individuals or stakeholders to identify and locate assets, or simply taking a walk around the community being assessed (Mosavel et al., 2018). Asset mapping can be an effective way to facilitate participation and efficacy within communities. Processes such as identification of visible assets, noticing patterns of interactions among those assets, as well as the accessibility of assets can make valuable contributions to developing a community asset map (Mosavel et al., 2018). Once assets have been identified, they can be categorized and used to build connections that multiply their power and effectiveness, while also targeting institutions that are not yet being utilized to bolster efforts (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996).
It should also be noted that ABCD offers the additional strength in its inclusivity, and its emphasis on the perspectives of nonspecialists, including youth, seniors, and the differently abled (Blickem et al., 2018). The analysis of asset maps can offer keen insight into issues such as access to food and transportation, opportunities for greenspace transformation and improved health outcomes, and other issues that communities might seek to enhance. Figure 1 provides a template to use when conducting an observational asset assessment by walking throughout the neighborhood.
Methods for Conducting Community Assessments
Data Collection Methods
The Community Toolbox (n.d.) and Ohmer and DeMasi (2009) identify multiple methods for collecting data for Community Assessments, including: (a) using existing data (census data, public records, existing reports of information gathered by other organizations, websites, etc.); (b) one-on-one meetings and interviews with key stakeholders, and informal and formal leaders (people respected in their communities); (c) small focus groups or listening sessions to learn about the community and their perspectives on issues, resources, assets, barriers, and solutions, including what has worked and not worked in the past); (d) direct observation of the community (e.g., walking and/or windshield surveys; Google street view) and/or participant observation (e.g., participating in a community meeting, attending a community event, spending time in local parks, or going to a local coffee shop); (e) surveys (e.g., written surveys, online surveys; in person or via email, text, phone, etc.); (f) asset maps focusing on community resources and strengths (e.g., these are like the maps conducted when using asset-based community development approaches). Sometimes these maps have already been developed by the local community, so check with your community partner to see if they have already created an asset map (see, for example, an asset map for Pittsburgh where you can learn about the assets in specific communities and neighborhoods); (g) public forums and town hall meetings where information can be shared about the results from a community assessment, as well as to get feedback and ideas. These types of forums are typically larger meetings with residents and key stakeholders organized by local organizations or by your organization in collaboration with already identified community partners.
Dissemination and Action
When producing reports of community assessments, it is crucial to keep the audience in mind. Some reports may be utilized in an academic setting, and alternatively or additionally, results of the assessment are presented to nonacademic laypersons. In general, reports should be written at a high-school reading level, free from jargon, acronyms, or other technical language (Royse et al., 2009). While passive voice is often used with academic writing, using an active voice may be preferable in creating a community assessment report that is an engaging narrative for the audience. Active voice is generally shorter than passive voice; for example, “Over 100 residents attended the community forum” versus “the community forum was attended by over 100 residents.” It is also necessary to consider the purposes of both the community assessment and the report in mind when creating a summary. Is this a document that will be shared with the public, or kept for internal organizational use? Will it be used for making programming and resource decisions, or will it be used to present the outcomes objectively so that the reader can draw their own conclusions? The answers to these questions are better discussed earlier in the process. These will provide guidance as to how the report should be designed and the type of information that should be highlighted.
As a rule of thumb, the outcomes report should contain four sections: the introduction, the methodology, the findings, and a summary (Royse et al., 2009). The introduction explains the purpose of the assessment and relevant background information about the issues or subjects of interest that led to the assessment and what the community participants hope to learn. After reading this section, the audience should be able to understand the purpose and rationale for the assessment. The methodology section is the opportunity for the writer to explain processes like how participants were recruited, an overview of any survey instruments that were used, and information such as the number of participants and how those participants are representative of the larger population (Royse et al., 2009). The findings/results section is arguably the most critical part of disseminating the assessment findings. Again, it is important to keep in mind the purpose of the project and whether it is the job of the writer/organizer to make recommendations or to report the data as objectively as possible. This portion of the reporting should focus on the objectives of the project rather than a detailed description of every finding. Responsible researchers should also include project limitations or any issues that occurred during the assessment, both for the purposes of sustainability and replicability, as well as transparency and ethical research. The summary is basically an abstract that provides a snapshot of the project and highlights key findings and recommendations. One suggestion is to keep the full report brief, using the appendices for more detailed descriptions of the data and results. In addition to a comprehensive report, a brief executive summary and/or an infographic would be helpful for dissemination to a wider audience.
Community assessments and the resulting report can be used to develop action plans for addressing community issues. For example, a consensus organizer builds on the relationships developed through the community analysis to engage a core group of residents in developing an action plan and designing and implementing win-win projects (Ohmer & DeMasi, 2009). Action plans should include the overall goals for improving the neighborhood and specific objectives and projects related to each goal. Successful action plans typically have four major ingredients: (a) community support and buy-in, (b) real and tangible roles for residents and stakeholders, (c) criteria to evaluate progress, and (d) internal and external resources engaged and invested in the community.
Win-win projects feasibly and quickly address one or more of the key goals and priorities in the action plan in ways that will garner widespread community support, engage the self and mutual interests of residents and external stakeholders, and tangibly and visibly illustrate the community’s strengths and progress toward their overall goals. Action plans and win-win projects should be used to build partnerships based on mutual self-interests that can be sustained over a long period of time. Consensus organizers employ two key principles for building and sustaining partnerships (Ohmer & DeMasi, 2009). First, self-determination is key to community organizing but also to macro social work practice. Essentially, self-determination means that those most affected by problems should lead efforts in finding solutions. The second principle is contribution, which means that macro practitioners should engage a broad base of people to participate and contribute to devising solutions to problems. These strategies and principles are key to building on community assessments to strengthen community capacity and sustainable and positive neighborhood change.
Throughout the community assessment process, it is important to understand that conflicts and sources of tension can exist in communities despite the ability to find common ground on some issues. Therefore, it is important to anticipate and build in time for disagreements among residents and between residents and key stakeholders, individually or as a group. Disagreements can also occur between residents and macro social work professionals who may be assisting with the assessment process. It is important to discuss with the organizational leaders in advance how to handle differences and potential conflicts. For example, ownership issues can occur about who has access to and/or who owns the data gathered during a community assessment. If this is a potential problem, then a data sharing agreement of some kind could be developed as part of the initial steps in the community assessment process to clarify questions or concerns about data access and ownership. Understanding potential sources of conflict and working with community partners and organizational leaders in advance to develop ways to address these conflicts is also key to a successful community assessment process.
Community assessments are important tools for macro social workers to use to engage community residents and stakeholders, as well as external stakeholders, to identify the community assets, strengths, and capacities necessary for addressing community problems and fostering sustainable community change efforts. Social workers have been criticized in the past for focusing too much on the needs and deficits in the community at the expense of community assets or resources. Too often needs assessments are conducted in a top-down fashion and are used to raise resources for agency programs and initiatives. Macro social workers now have extensive tools and resources to conduct community assessments that provide a more comprehensive picture of a community that can be used to create action plans and raise and leverage resources both inside and outside the community. There are also extensive resources available for social work educators on ways to incorporate macro content into the curriculum, including methods for conducting community assessments. For example, the Council on Social Work Education’s (2018) Specialized Practice Curricular Guide for Macro Practice is a resource that provides examples of macro content related to the CSWE competencies, including readings and course assignments. Understanding how to conduct a community assessment is clearly important for macro social work students, but it is also important for students in clinical MSW programs, as well as BSW programs. All social workers need to be prepared to conduct community assessments that genuinely engage the community, build on their strengths, and promote community change.
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