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Conduct a Community Needs Assessment

A step-by-step guide

This toolkit helps institutions understand why they should lead a community needs assessment and what steps they should take to manage one.

While community needs assessments (CNAs) are not a new method to determine what resources a region or population requires, they are an increasingly common activity for higher education institutions to perform. To support partners, EAB has built out a comprehensive suite of resources on CNAs. We recommend starting with this overview guide before turning to the planning tool and case studies.

Download the Planning Guide

What is a community needs assessment?

A community needs assessment is a mechanism to understand a population’s needs, identify both the strengths and gaps of existing programming within a defined community, and create or enhance equitable programming. CNAs can help organize action and determine solutions for pressing regional or local needs.

Topic areas and parameters for CNAs can vary widely, ranging from concrete assessments that address things like food insecurity to more abstract efforts that seek to improve community cohesiveness and wellness.

Why should a university conduct a community needs assessment?

Universities should conduct community needs assessments:

  • To learn more about the priorities and concerns of community members,
  • When the university has greater trust in their community than other actors (e.g., government or non-profits),
  • To identify and collaborate with community leaders and organizations focused on a specific issue or population within the region,
  • To gain community support for possible solutions, or
  • To persuade funders and decision-makers to provide resources, programs, or services.

Often, community needs assessments are conducted by government agencies or non-profits that serve specific community groups but there remains a strong opportunity for colleges and universities to lead a CNA in their communities. While institutions should still partner with government agencies and community organizations throughout the CNA process, they can leverage their unique research capabilities, access to talent, and organizational partnerships to determine gaps in community and institutional services.

When shouldn’t a university lead a community needs assessment?

Community needs assessments are productive in certain circumstances, though there are situations when a college or university should avoid investing resources to conduct a CNA.

Universities should avoid conducting a community needs assessment when:

  • The most important needs of the community or group are well-known, agreed-upon, and have not changed,
  • A CNA was conducted recently, and needs have not changed,
  • The university lacks sufficient trust in the region or with the population,
  • The situation requires urgent and immediate action, or
  • The community (or a group from the community) would view the process as redundant and wasteful, and it would negatively impact community relations.
There are four steps to completing a community needs assessment, outlined below.

Step 1: Create assessment plan

1. Define parameters

First, higher education leaders need to define the parameters of the community needs assessment, including the scope and objectives and goals.

Determine Scope

To determine the scope of the CNA, leaders must identify the sector to assess, which components of the sector to analyze, and what population to consider. These decisions will subsequently inform which stakeholders to involve and what kind of data to collect.

  • What sector will the CNA review?
  • What components will the CNA use as metrics?
  • What is the relevant population or demographic?

Common sectors, which are broad topic areas, include community health, access to education, local business needs, employment opportunities, and racial justice, among others. Components are more specific areas of interest within a sector. Within the community health sector, for example, common components could include access to food or diabetes prevention. Institutions typically choose to focus on a regional population, such as all residents within a city, county, or state, or a community group with shared characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, age, or occupation.

CNAs that focus on a broad sector or large population require more collaboration across organizations or within the institution. An assessment that is more tightly scoped, however, may be completed by one office or center. With a narrow scope, CNAs can more easily assess richer levels of data, build relationships and trust with community members, and simplify action steps.

Clarify Objectives and Goals

The three main objectives of a community needs assessment are policy, systems, or environmental change. When institutions work with community partners, the most likely outcome is environmental change because in most cases, the involved stakeholders have the greatest control over creating or adapting programs at the individual level. However, the information gathered throughout the process can help develop policy and systems change recommendations.

Relatedly, leaders must also determine the goal or goals of the community needs assessment. The goals will be narrower than the objective and lead to direct action. Common goals of CNAs include:

  • Identifying and prioritizing specific community needs
  • Determining barriers to access
  • Assessing existing community programs
  • Establishing new internal or external programs
  • Providing recommendations to external stakeholders
  • Creating concrete action steps to develop or enhance community resources

Three main objectives of community needs assessments

  • Policy change: Changes in laws, regulations, protocols, or procedures. These changes are either legislative, institutional, or organizational in form.
    Example: Ban soda sales in community vending machines
  • Systems change: Changes at all components of a community, advocating for norm adjustments at the organizational, institutional, or system level.
    Example: Connect emergency food providers with local farmers
  • Environmental change: Physical, social, and economic change to influence people’s behaviors.
    Example: Create new programs to address community poverty

2. Identify diverse team and assign responsibilities

The next step is to identify both the internal and external partners to be involved in the community needs assessment process.

The office responsible for conducting the CNA is typically one of the following:

  • extension office
  • academic college
  • research center or institute
  • economic development office
  • community engagement office
  • government relations office

Colleges and universities often need to partner with external organizations to build trust within the community or gain access to underserved populations in the region. Community organizations, particularly those that serve underrepresented groups, can act as trusted messengers for institutions that may not be able to currently locate or serve these populations.

To determine best-fit external partners, institutions must identify which individuals, organizations, and institutions are already involved in the selected sector, geographic area, or with the targeted population. Mapping these community assets can also help institutions identify existing resources, secure partnerships, and develop sustainable.

  • “”


    Who can receive this organization’s services?

  • “”


    Does the organization have the capacity to assist in the CNA process?

  • “”


    How effective is the available programming?

  • “”


    How many programs are offered?

  • “”


    Does the community believe in the organization and its services?

3. Create a data collection plan

Once the team is organized, it can identify existing data and research on the topic, population group, and region to understand the status quo and create a data wish list. Reviewing relevant existing data helps the team determine gaps in analysis, identify any additional populations or concerns to consider, and decide what additional data needs to be collected.

The Census Bureau or state-provided data resources have extensive publicly available data sets. Other reliable external data sources can come from the Chamber of Commerce, civic organizations, faith-based groups, the health department or health care providers, non-profit organizations, and the public school system.

Community needs assessments typically use a mixed-methods approach, with quantitative data from external government data sites that captures demographic information and qualitative data from surveys, interviews, and public forums that capture narrative themes and nuanced information. Learn more about data collection for CNAs.

Types of data to collect for a community needs assessment
  • Existing community resources
  • Interviews
  • Surveys
  • Public forums
  • Focus groups

After data needs and collection methods are confirmed, the team can select data collection sites. In addition to online distribution of surveys and interview requests, consider in-person collection sites at a mix of urban and rural locations if applicable, and ensure that sites provide access for all types of populations. Teams should consider locating sites at community organizations to reach underrepresented or underserved populations.

4. Secure funding

CNAs can be funded by the institution, external partners, government grants, or the community.

Case studies

5. Determine timeline

The timeline to conduct a CNA is highly dependent on the parameters, objectives, and funding. CNAs conducted at institutions typically take between three months for narrowly scoped assessments to two years for more expansive ones.

  • 3 months: Planning
  • 6 months: Data collection
  • 9 months: Data analysis
  • 12 months: Action planning

Case studies

  • Brandeis University took six months to conduct a CNA on the needs of the Ugandan immigrant population in Waltham, MA.
  • Kent State University will take two years to explore and understand the needs of the LGBTQ+ community in Akron, OH.

Step 2: Conduct assessment

Most organizations incorporate a combination of quantitative and qualitative data sources when conducting a CNA. Below are the most common data collection techniques.

Inventory community resources and map community assets

Develop a community profile that outlines the current demographics, economic data, and services provided in the region. Resources can include health care providers, domestic violence shelters, food assistance programs, housing resources, counseling services, and more.

Learn More About Asset Mapping

Conduct surveys

Concerns surveys allow community members to identify the most pressing issues or problems facing their community. These types of surveys can help inform later interview questions and action planning. Other types of surveys can focus on gathering demographic information or beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors exhibited by community members.

Interview key informants

Interviews can provide in-depth perspectives on population- or topic-specific issues and enhance data collected through secondary resources and surveys. Contact key informants, who can range from community leaders, residents, or experts on a particular topic, to provide qualitative intelligence.

Learn More About Interviewing Key Informants

Host listening sessions and focus groups

Focus groups and listening sessions can add a nuanced narrative to survey data collected throughout the CNA process. Consider segmenting focus groups by topic or population to analyze patterns across groups.

Learn More About Focus Groups

Step 3: Analyze data

Disaggregate quantitative data

Disaggregated data can reveal important inequities and differences between subcategories that are not apparent when analyzing an entire dataset. Commonly used categories include gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age, immigrant status, sexual orientation, and insurance status. By disaggregating data, institutional leaders can develop targeted programming to best address specific community needs. However, disaggregated data may not be useful for tightly scoped community needs assessment, as it is more difficult to determine trends and protect individual privacy when populations are small.

Evaluate and organize qualitative responses

For qualitative data, it is best practice to develop a rating scale so that there is consistency across analysis.

Step 4: Develop action plan

The final step is to develop an action plan to provide recommendations or guide program development. This is the most valuable component of the CNA, as it brings the qualitative and quantitative insights to life. However, many needs assessments fail to integrate action planning and accountability mechanisms into their process which limits their impact in the community. Institutions must plan to collect feedback from the community and incorporate these responses into further recommendations or changes in their assessment reports.

Even though your institution may lead the CNA process, you may need to incorporate multiple stakeholders in the action planning. Depending on the issue, it can be more effective for the university to partner with a community organization or government agency to determine strategy and implement action steps.

Develop community profile

The first stage of developing an action plan is to develop a community profile. A community profile provides a baseline summary of the strengths, resources, and gaps within a community. The community profile should include secondary data collected about relevant demographics, information on existing community organizations, and primary data collected throughout the community needs assessment process.

See an Example of a Community Profile

Community profiles can include information on:

  • Demographic characteristics (e.g., average household income, age distribution, concentrations of special groups)
  • Economic data (e.g., unemployment rates and trends, major employers and industries)
  • Housing data (e.g., concentration of renters versus owners, availability of low-income housing)
  • Transportation data (e.g., transit development plans, bike paths)
  • Community buildings, resources, and services (e.g., hospitals, schools, churches, community centers)
  • Any other notable or unique features of the community (e.g., historical aspects)

Create reports and present feedback

The next step is to disseminate the findings from the CNA to the community as a written report or at a public meeting. The report should include the purpose of the community needs assessment, the stakeholders involved, a summary of the data collection process, and an analysis of the findings.

Institutions can solicit feedback through townhalls, email distribution, or university-community working groups. Participants should rank top issues to help ensure community support for the prioritized needs. Additionally, through university-community working groups, institutions must ask participants two questions:

  1. What is the community’s perception of the issue?
  2. What role does the community believe the university should play in the process of improving this issue?

Prioritize need and relevant action steps

After the community provides feedback on the findings, the team must determine a process to prioritize needs. In addition to soliciting community input, the team must consider institutional or organizational capacity to address the need, previous and existing attempts to address the topic, and any social, political, racial, or socioeconomic factors that affect this issue.

Learn How to Prioritize and Rank Needs

Consider developing a prioritization matrix or scoring rubric that allows institutional leaders, community organizations, and any other participants to gather perceived rankings and inform action steps. A low feasibility but high impact program could be free, accessible health care for all residents in a city. A high feasibility but low impact program could be a food drive for residents with diabetes who live in a small neighborhood.

Other options to prioritize community needs include:

  • Team consensus: all members of the group agree to support a decision for a common goal
  • Nominal group process: team members give feedback on each topic area and individually vote on their top priorities
  • Force field analysis: members of the group identify the forces that would support and undermine change
  • Paired comparison technique: group members compare areas of need in pairs to determine which is the highest priority
  • Interrelationship diagram: team members analyze cause-and-effect relationships in complex situations to determine what areas of need are most effectively addressed by further action planning

Lastly, colleges and universities must create an action plan for each prioritized need. Develop benchmarks, identify metrics to measure, determine strategies for action, and outline expected results to define success. Ensure action plans allow time for periodic reflection and assessment of objectives, metrics, and action steps to ensure the plan can adapt as change.

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