Conducting Needs Assessments: A Multidisciplinary Approach

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Fernando I. Soriano

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    Dedication

    This book is dedicated to my sons Fernando and Anthony—the most important and precious experiences in my life thus far.

    Preface

    During my tenure as research psychologist for the Navy Personnel Research and Development Center in San Diego in the early 1980s I first became interested and involved in conducting needs assessments. With the establishment of Navy Family Service Centers throughout Navy bases worldwide, concomitant with looming military budget cuts, base commanders were being asked to undertake needs assessments of military personnel and their dependents. At that time the military and Navy were dramatically expanding their interest in military families, because studies were suggesting a link between their well-being and such military concerns as performance, readiness, and retention. Similarly, my subsequent work with community-based agencies involved me with needs assessments. Altogether, these experiences demonstrated to me the importance of needs assessments and pointed to the lack of information available about this powerful assessment concept and tool.

    My interaction with those needing and benefiting from needs assessments has prompted me to write this book. It is written to be easy to read, yet technically sophisticated and comprehensive enough to address such critical questions as knowing the first steps to plan for an assessment, determining sample sizes, conducting appropriate analyses, and the best formats for reporting findings. An important feature of this book is Chapter 8, on special considerations in working with culturally and socially diverse populations. From the start, the United States has been multicultural and socially diverse, which is the case now more than ever. Conducting successful needs assessments necessitates taking into consideration the inherent diversity of target populations—whether based on culture, gender, income, education, or regional differences. It is my hope that readers will find this book as helpful, practical, and approachable as it was intended to be.

    Many people helped with this book. First and foremost, Sandy and my boys afforded me not only the time I spent writing the book, but also the time I spent earlier conducting needs assessments or helping others to do so. Second, I acknowledge the many military and civilian community leaders who helped me better understand what type of information is lacking on needs assessments. In particular, I wish to thank Ann O'Keefe who, as head of the Navy's Family Support Program at the time, made it possible for me to continue my involvement in needs assessments. The support, encouragement, and trust granted to me by Dean Michael Reed and my Department Chair Philip Feil of the University of Missouri were essential to the completion of this book. I wish also to acknowledge the support of my mother, Ignacia Soriano, who was always there to validate my efforts, no matter what they were. I wish to acknowledge the recent and significant contributions of Elena Marie Melendez, who was interested enough in needs assessments to donate her deft editorial skills.

    Last but certainly not least, I wish to express my deep appreciation to series editor Armand Lauffer and Marquita Flemming from Sage—who both were abundantly patient and encouraging in the journey of writing this book. Without their patience and understanding I would never have completed it. More recently, James Nageotte, also from Sage, became the book's editor and accomplished many detailed editorial and publication tasks. To him I also owe great gratitude for his skillful editorial assistance. This book, minus its shortcomings, is a tribute to Lauffer, Flemming, and Nageotte.

    Fernando I.Soriano

    Introduction

    David, I really don't know. We have been funding your community center for the past five years and have always trusted your judgment in offering needed services. I've kept up with the newspaper articles reporting the many events you have sponsored in the community. The annual reports you provided have been appreciated. You've always listed the activities in which your center has participated. But, David, we are swamped with requests from others in the city who are looking for support and need our help. And frankly, they do have empirical data clearly demonstrating the need for their proposed programs. I'm sorry, David, but without data showing the need for your services, we can no longer fund your center.

    Human service providers are increasingly confronted with the need to prove that their services are indeed needed. Although in the past this proof could have been verification that services were being rendered, now service providers are likely to be required to demonstrate a clear awareness of their target population. The above vignette illustrates the increasing demand for empirical data to justify funding for human service programs. As a result, many representatives of the social and human service fields will be involved in commissioning, conducting, or utilizing information from needs assessments—if not for justifying services, then for determining what they should be.

    The term needs assessment appears deceptively simple to understand. It refers to the process of assessing needs. Some might say that it means the collection of data bearing on the need for services, products, or information. In fact, it is the conceptually appealing nature of the term that makes its frequent application attractive. Unfortunately, although the term seems intuitive, the process of conducting needs assessments is far from intuitive. Rather, it is technical and sophisticated. And it requires an awareness of the scope and significance of the information collected.

    Kaufman and English (1979) describe needs assessment in a way that reflects this complexity. They call it “a tool for determining valid and useful problems which are philosophically as well as practically sound. It keeps us from running down more blind educational alleys, from using time, dollars and people in attempted solutions which do not work” (p. 31). From this definition, we can conclude that needs assessments enable us to obtain valid and reliable information, which helps us to better target our services and efforts. Private businesses readily recognize the importance of evaluating the need for their products or services. A lack of need for what they offer translates into no sales. Their immediate criteria for success are sales and profits. On the other hand, in the human services realm, in particular among not-for-profit organizations, the volume of sales and profits is not the driving force. Typically, their criterion for success is providing the services they recognize are needed in their catchment area. The need for social programs or human services is too often only assumed or believed evident and efforts to measure it are lacking. Among those who attempt to conduct needs assessments, many fail to know how to do so, which commonly results in uninterpretable or unrepresentative information gathered.

    The demand for a better understanding of needs assessments is changing, however. This phenomenon is largely due to the diminishing of monies available for human service providers. The requirement for the empirical demonstration of the need for services will undoubtedly continue in the years to come. The lack of available resources has led to increased competition for funding among services. Unfortunately, subjective appeals from service providers for funding for their services will no longer be sufficient. To ensure that limited monies are appropriated for the most useful services, funders are demanding clearer justification for programming budgets.

    Many funding agencies and foundations are requiring that applications for funding include results from needs assessments that demonstrate a clear need for the proposed programs or services. This requirement has led to a significant increase in the number of needs assessments being conducted for and by agencies. However, as those who are engaged in assessments are finding, the term needs assessment is often easier to comprehend than to apply. Moreover, serious measurement risks can result from conducting improper needs assessments. A needs assessment conducted in the general community, for example, may reveal a need for drug abuse treatment services, but may not be specific enough to point out the particular service needs of certain subpopulations such as the homeless, the highly transient, ethnic minority groups, non-English speakers, and so on. Needs assessments can be misleading when not carefully planned and executed.

    There are myriad reasons for conducting needs assessments, whether from requirements imposed by entities external to an organization or those requested internally. The following are among the most common reasons:

    • Justification for funding
    • Regulations or laws that mandate needs assessments
    • Resource allocation and decision making—determining the best use of limited resources
    • Assessing the needs of specific, underserved subpopulations
    • As part of program evaluations

    As mentioned earlier, funding agencies are increasingly demanding empirical justification for the financial support they provide. Furthermore, a growing number of state and federal agencies, as well as private foundations, mandate that funded agencies and programs conduct periodic needs assessments to ensure that funds are being used for services that are most needed.

    The mandate for program justification is not the only driving force behind the implementation of need assessments. Interest in such studies comes from various sources and situations. Successful, established service programs often recognize that needs assessments can help them to prioritize their efforts for the greatest possible programmatic effect. Results from needs assessments are used to make decisions about internal programming and resource allocation. In contrast, tragic social upheavals, such as the Los Angeles riots, also cause agencies and programs to reevaluate their effectiveness in meeting the needs of underserved communities. Well-targeted needs assessments can do much to identify the needs of frequently overlooked subpopulations, including ethnic minorities, adolescents, women, single parents, the elderly, and the homeless.

    Given the right planning, needs assessments can also form part of a program evaluation effort. Used in this way, needs assessments are conducted both before and after programmatic efforts are in place. The directors of a drug abuse prevention program may, for example, decide that the effectiveness of their community awareness campaigns can be reflected in both the reduction of use and in the perceived need for drug abuse prevention services. Hence, they may decide that changes suggested by responses to pre- and postneeds assessments will form part of their program evaluation. They can also use the results from each assessment to prioritize their services.

    Agencies and programs commonly have multiple reasons for conducting or commissioning needs assessments—some externally imposed, others internally derived. In many cases, needs assessments that are implemented at the request of an external agency would not otherwise be initiated. The perceived imposition of having to conduct an assessment leads to the term engendering strongly negative connotations since it is viewed as a threat or a burden. Consequently programs required to conduct needs assessments by outside agencies are often the least motivated to utilize the information gained from the reports for their own purposes. In contrast, agencies and programs that recognize the value of empirical information are the most likely to benefit from these assessments.

    Whether initiated internally or externally, whether viewed as a hassle or a help, needs assessments can help ensure programmatic success and efficiency by providing timely information about the communities being served. Human service programs and organizations are, by virtue of their mission, dynamic and evolving. Their effectiveness and survival increasingly depend on the availability of objective data guiding their efforts. This book is designed to help agencies, programs, researchers, and others better understand needs assessment methodologies.

    This book is suitable for use in courses, workshops, and as part of the reference material of human service agencies and organizations. It is designed to provide a basic but working understanding of needs assessments. I will focus on the methods commonly used in conducting needs assessments for application in human or social services. This book is structured as a practical, “how-to” resource, guiding the reader through the steps required to undertake a comprehensive needs assessment. It begins with the formulation of realistic objectives and ends with a discussion of effective reporting formats. Each chapter contains examples, suggestions, and exercises for developing basic research competencies. A needs assessment guide is included in the appendix, which guides the user through each conceptual and empirical step outlined in the book.

    This book is meant not as a substitute for but as a complement to an earlier volume on needs assessments in this series by Sage (Neuber et al., 1980). Unlike the earlier volume, which presented one needs assessment methodology and model, this book examines the most commonly used methodologies for conducting needs assessments. The reader is encouraged to consult other volumes in this series for other relevant and useful information also bearing on needs assessments (Berger & Patchner, 1988a, 1988b; Blythe & Tripodi, 1989; Coley & Scheinberg, 1990; Kettner, Moroney, & Martin, 1990; Lauffer, 1982; Schaefer, 1987).

    A special feature of this book is its multidisciplinary approach to needs assessments. Other publications have typically been grounded in a particular discipline, such as business or mental health. Another advantage of this book is that it assumes a candid and pragmatic approach to conducting needs assessments. Too often, those commissioned to conduct needs assessments fail to understand the organizational limitations to utilizing new information; thus, their suggestions assume organizational change is both easy and welcome. New information may not be accepted by the agency, for reasons that vary from political motivations (maintenance of the status quo) to pragmatic reasons such as budgetary constraints.

    Overview

    The presentation of topics in the book's chapters follows a conceptual and practical sequence that plots out the steps for conducting needs assessments. Chapter 1 describes and distinguishes needs assessments from other related efforts, such as program evaluation. Included is a discussion of the limitations facing agencies and programs undertaking needs assessments. Several common needs assessment methodologies are introduced and described in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 considers in greater depth survey methods, which are most common and popular, and includes a simplified discussion of what is often a misunderstood issue: sample size and selection. Connected to sample size requirements are participation and nonresponse rates, also discussed in Chapter 3. Guidelines for developing data collection instruments are discussed in Chapter 4.

    Statistical methods are introduced and their applications described in Chapter 5. Chapter 6 discusses traditional and effective methods of reporting findings. Throughout the book a concerted effort is made to mention special considerations when working with socially, linguistically, and culturally diverse populations. However, special theoretical, conceptual, and methodological considerations are outlined in Chapter 7, to assist those conducting needs assessments with diverse populations. Finally, the Conclusion points to additional resource materials that the reader may investigate, including a description of the Needs Assessment Resource Guide, which is included in this book.

  • Conclusion

    This book provided an introductory overview of various common needs assessments methods. It highlighted many important preliminary steps that need to be taken before choosing a particular methodology, including identifying key stakeholders in the outcomes of the assessment.

    I emphasized the importance of developing a clear and concise purpose and key questions for needs assessments, which help to identify clearly the target populations and the scope of studies. Distinctions were emphasized between quantitative and qualitative methods and their implications for sample sizes, data preparation, coding, and analyses.

    I also emphasized the importance of providing a logically organized report that presents the results of a needs assessment. Finally, I considered the importance of understanding the social and cultural context of respondents. Cultural and linguistic considerations were particularly emphasized and are offered as a special contribution of this book.

    The appendix provides a listing of the literature on needs assessments and study methodology, useful for obtaining additional information on the subject. The appendix also contains a needs assessment guide to help the reader design and implement a needs assessment. This guide is simply a guide—it does not make decisions. However, the information in the main body of the book, along with the guide, will help the reader make the best decisions possible.

    Needs assessments are important methods of gaining critical information needed by organizations to meet the human service needs of their target populations. Needs assessments are increasingly being required of organizations to continue their funding and justify their programs. This situation has sometimes led to negative or indifferent attitudes toward needs assessments by human service organizations being asked to conduct them.

    In addition to attitudinal problems toward needs assessments, many assessments are hastily planned and poorly conceived, which leads to inferior data and unreliable results. Agencies and organizations need to see needs assessments as helpful ways of gaining vital information that can help ensure the success of their organizations. Doing so can increase their motivation to invest the necessary time in conducting one.

    Regardless of interest by human service organizations, the diminishing amount of funding for community programs will undoubtedly lead to heightened competition for scarce funding as well as the need for greater justification for the services, products, or information rendered. Organizations would do well to conduct their own needs assessments before being mandated by external entities. As mentioned, needs assessments are adaptable to the amount of people and funding resources available. When possible, organizations should seek the assistance of researchers from universities and colleges, because they are often eager to assist. Suggestions were offered on ways to enlist the involvement of academic researchers.

    This book is far from comprehensive. Many complex issues, such as statistical analysis, have been necessarily simplified for space reasons. However, the information included will help the reader gain a basic understanding of needs assessments and the steps needed to undertake one.

    Needs assessments are being applied by various types of agencies, ranging from community-based organizations to large corporations. The literature on needs assessments can be found scattered in diverse fields such as the social sciences, business administration, education, and marketing. The reader is encouraged to build on the understanding of needs assessments gained here and to seek information from such sources as those represented among the references listed in the reference section.

    Appendix: Needs Assessment Guide

    Instructions

    This guide is designed to help you think about the information needed to conduct a needs assessment. The guide does not focus on a particular subject or field. It can be used for designing needs assessments in most social service and human service fields. The guide is divided into the following eight sections:

    • Purpose and Objectives
    • Roles and Responsibilities
    • Target Population and Subgroups
    • Stakeholders
    • Resource Availability
    • Using the Information
    • Decision-Making Guide
    • General Checklist

    Answer the questions in each section as completely as possible and follow additional instructions in the guide. Place a check mark next to the questions you cannot answer at this time. Seek out the information needed to answer any questions left blank before conducting a needs assessment.

    At the end of the guide is a general checklist, which can help you identify the sections in which all questions have been answered. This guide is not all encompassing and should not be used alone. You will need to refer to other sources of information, such as the book and the reading material in the reference section, before making final decisions about the design and implementation of a needs assessment.

    I. Purpose and Objectives
    • General Purpose: What is the purpose of conducting a needs assessment?
    • Objectives: What are the key questions for which you need answers? The key questions determine the scope of a needs assessment and are directed at the purpose of the study.

      Caution: These questions will guide the data collected.

    Key Questions:

    II. Roles and Responsibilities

    The following questions refer to those who are responsible for aspects of the needs assessment.

    General Responsibility
    • Who is responsible for seeing that a needs assessment is conducted?

    Specific Responsibilities

    List individuals responsible for the following components of the needs assessment:

    • General Planning and Coordinating (all aspects of the study):

    • Designing the Study:

    • Collecting the Data:

    • Coding or Preparing the Data for Analysis:

    • Analyzing the Data (i.e., tabulating or noting the results without interpreting):

    • Interpreting the Results (i.e., give meaning to the data):

    • Reporting the Results:

    Stop and consider those people delegated responsibilities. Ask yourself these questions:

    YES/NO
    Are they being granted release time to accomplish these responsibilities?______
    Do they have the needed interest and skills or are they able or willing to acquire them to accomplish their assigned task(s)?______
    If a group effort, are members of this group willing and able to work together, have the opportunity to do so, and communicate with one another enough to accomplish the entire task?______

    If any responses to these questions are no, reassign personnel and responsibilities or consider contracting the needs assessment or parts of it to outside experts (e.g., university researchers, private research contractors, parent agency, consultants, and so on).

    Overseeing Committee

    Form an overseeing committee, made up of internal and external members of the organization. At least one member of the target community should be a part of this committee. Ethnic minority members should also be included, if reflective of the target population.

    • Describe the membership of the overseeing committee.

      Number of members:______
      Number of members from the target population:______
      Number of members who are ethnic minorities reflective of target population:______

    • Indicate how often the committee will meet.

      Will the overseeing committee be used to oversee:

    • Ethics?

      ___Yes___ No___ Not sure (Please determine.)

      If no, explain who will:

    • Wording of Questionnaire?

      ___Yes___ No___ Not sure (Please determine.)

      If no, explain who will:

    • Cultural Sensitivity and Relevance?

      ___Yes___ No___ Not sure (Please determine.)

      If no, explain who will:

    • General Appropriateness of Study Design and Plans to Implement It?

      ___Yes___ No___ Not sure (Please determine.)

      If no, explain who will:

    III. Target Population and Subgroups

    These questions pertain to the targeted population for the needs assessment and the relevant subgroups.

    • What are the physical boundaries delineating the target area?
    • Describe the target population. Use demographic or other key characteristics important for defining who is and is not a member of the target population.
    • Is it important for you specifically to compare needs among ethnic groups?

      ___Yes___ No

    • If yes, check off the ethnic groups you need information from:

    • For each subgroup marked, indicate how you will determine ethnic group membership (self-identification?).
    • Is it important for you specifically to compare needs between gender groups?

      ___ Yes ___ No

    • If yes, will you want 50% of each in your sample?

      ___ Yes ___ No

    • Is it important for you to compare subgroups differing in education (e.g., high school vs. college graduates)?

      ___ Yes ___ No

    • If yes, describe the different education subgroups and how you will define each:
    • Is it important for you to compare subgroups differing in income levels (e.g., family income under $10,000 vs. more than this amount)?

      ___ Yes ___ No

    • If yes, define each subgroup:
    • Are there other specialized subgroups in your target population about which you need specific data?

      ___ Yes ___ No

    • If yes, list and describe each specialized subgroup (e.g., elderly, adolescents, females, drug users, gang members, violent offenders):
    IV. Stakeholders

    List all who have some responsibility for commissioning a needs assessment, whether internal or external to your organization. Place them in order of decision-making influence from the most influential* in commissioning and directing the implementation of a needs assessment to the least influential (list names and affiliation to the organization needing the assessment).

    Circle the number for those who must be satisfied in the undertaking of a needs assessment. Indicate the general type of assessment they expect (quantitative or qualitative) and list the reason for their preference. Determine the number of appropriate persons.

    * “Influential persons” are those who need to be satisfied, and for whom there are positive or negative consequences (e.g., redo/acclaim the needs assessment, praise/criticize the implementing organization, increase/maintain/withdraw agency's funds).

    V. Resource Availability
    • List the amount of funds you have to conduct a needs assessment: $___
    • List the people who will help conduct the needs assessment and indicate if they have training or experience in conducting needs assessments.

    • List any language capability they possess that can be used to interact with study participants who may not have a command of English:

    • List cultural training or experience these same persons hold that may be used for collecting data for the needs assessment.

    • Check off the equipment and supplies you have access to. Check all that apply:

    • How much time do you have to undertake a needs assessment from start to finish?

      Time in months:________________

    • Is this amount inflexible?
    • ___ Yes ___ No ___ Not sure (Please find out.)
    VI. Using the Information
    • Indicate the expected uses of the results of the study. Check off all that apply.

      Results from the needs assessment will enable you to:

    • Are two needs assessments being planned for a pre/post evaluation study?

      ___ Yes___ No

    • How do you plan to report the results of the needs assessment? Select one:

    • Who will be responsible for documenting the results of the study?

    VII. Decision-Making Guide

    Place a check mark next to the most appropriate response to each question below. Use your previous responses in the guide to help you respond to the questions.

    • Type of needs assessment:

    • Type of questionnaire or data source:

    • Form of questions to ask:

    • Will your sample be stratified (i.e., participants selected based on such demographic characteristics as gender, ethnicity, income, education)?

    • If yes, what are your stratifying variables?

    • How many participants do feel you need?

      Number:______

    • If selecting a stratified sample, how many participants will you need in each stratum (e.g., gender: 30 men and 30 women)?

    • Participant Selection Method to Be Used:

    • What types of demographic variables will you include in your questionnaire (e.g., gender, ethnicity)?

    • Will you conduct a pretest?

      ___ Yes___ No___ Not sure

      If no or not sure, explain why:___

      If yes, how many participants will you need?

      Number:________________

    • Select the type of statistical analysis you will use:

    VIII. General Checklist

    Place a check mark next to each section title below that you have addressed satisfactorily. Indicate other concerns that need to be satisfied before conducting a needs assessment.

    • ___ I. Purpose and Objectives
    • ___ II. Roles and Responsibilities
    • ___ III. Targeted Population and Subgroups
    • ___ IV. Stakeholders
    • ___ V. Resource Availability
    • ___ VI. Use of the Information
    • ___ Other (Please indicate):
    • ___ Other (Please indicate):
    • ___ Other (Please indicate):

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    About the Author

    Fernando I. Soriano is Assistant Professor in the Department of Behavioral Science at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. He recently returned to Missouri after spending two years as Visiting Professor of Psychology and Education at Stanford University. He is an applied researcher and academician who has written numerous publications focusing on such social problems as gang membership, youth violence, delinquency, substance abuse, AIDS, and the health and oral health care status of minorities. He sits on several national committees, including the Commission on Violence and Youth for the American Psychological Association and the National Advisory Committee for the Gang Drug Abuse Prevention Program sponsored by the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families. He has been involved in community program development and evaluation for several years.

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