Needs assessment: A tool for program planning and community building

Content type
Event date

8 May 2019, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (AEST)


Paul Harkin, Jessica Smart




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This webinar was held on Wednesday, 8 May 2019. 

Identifying social issues and community assets ensures that services, programs and policies are responsive to the community. A needs assessment is a systematic process through which data are collected on social issues and community assets, and issues are prioritised for action. Undertaking a needs assessment provides an evidence-based foundation for a program, policy or service. It is an essential step in a community development process. 

This webinar provided an introduction to needs assessment and briefly described the process. It explored and provided practice insights into how conducting a good quality needs assessment can enhance an agency or organisation’s understanding of community issues and assets for policy or service delivery; and build and strengthen community through the needs assessment process.

This webinar is of interest to practitioners, leaders and policy makers, particularly those who are involved in planning and designing services, policies and programs.

This webinar built upon a recent Expert Panel Project practice resource.

This webinar is co-produced by CFCA and the Families and Children Expert Panel Project, AIFS.

Audio transcript (edited)


Hello and welcome everybody. Good afternoon everyone, and welcome today's Webinar. Needs assessment, a tool for program planning and community building. My name is Sharnee Moore and I am a research fellow here at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land, on which we are meeting. In Melbourne, the traditional custodians are the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. I pay my respects to their elders, past and present. And to the elders from other communities who may be participating today. Today's Webinar will demonstrate how a needs assessment can inform program planning, as well as contribute to community building (indistinct). We're privileged to have two eminent speakers to discuss this topic, Paul Harkin and Jessica Smart. Paul Harkin is the Director of Community Development at The Benevolent Society. He has a master of Community Development and over 20 years' experience working in the community sector in Ireland, the UK and Australia.

Paul's career has given him the privilege of engaging with strong communities in urban and rural settings, communities that work with their strengths to address the challenges. He has engaged with communities to design new solutions to the issues they face through needs assessment, collaboration and advocacy. His present role with The Benevolent Society includes: supporting their community focus services so that each service understands and is connected to the individual communities in which they are based, understanding their outcomes for clients and communities. Joining Paul is my esteemed and Senior Research Officer here at AIFS, Jessica Smart. Jessica works across multiple projects but her passion is definitely evaluation in capacity building. Her previous work has been in the not-for-profit sector. Developing, delivering and evaluating community development and population health projects. Recent projects have been the area of sexual health and respectful relationships with people with an intellectual disability.

For the focus on engaging community members as partners in research, program delivery and evaluation. Jessica recently completed a Master of Public Health at the University of Melbourne. We encourage you to send your questions through via a chat box during the Webinar. And for Paul and Jessica to answer questions during question time. We've also set up a forum on our website where you can discuss the ideas and issues raised, submit additional questions for our presenters and access related resources.

Any questions submitted via the chatbox that we can't get to today will be answered in the forum. Please let us know if you don't want your question or first name to be published on our website. As always, our Webinars are recorded. The slides are available in the hand out section of the Go to Webinar. The audio slides, transcript and recording of the Webinar will be made available on our website and YouTube channel shortly. It is with great pleasure that I would like to introduce Jessica Smart. Please give her a warm virtual welcome.


Thanks so much, Sharnee. So to give you a bit of an overview of what I'm going to talk about today I'm going to give us a bit of a definition of needs assessment. I'm going to talk about why you would undertake a needs assessment. We're briefly going to talk about what need actually is and needs and assets. And I'll outline the steps in a needs assessment. And then I'll hand over to Paul to talk about his work and the work of The Benevolence Society.

So it did occur to me this morning that it might actually be interesting if I very briefly talked about why we've chosen to present on this topic and to produce resources on this topic here at AIFS. So myself and Sharnee who you've just heard from work in expert panel team. And in the expert panel team we work closely with the child and family sector. We work in particular with services funded under the families and children activity. And we do this work to increase - we work with those services to increase the use of evidence-informed practice.

And we do quite a bit of work around evaluation capacity building. And we are funded by the Department of Social Services to do that. But our consultation and engagement with the child and family services that we work with show that there was a bit of a gap in this area around needs assessment that not many services are doing a needs assessment or not many services are doing a kind of systematic or comprehensive needs assessment. And that kind of lines up with my experience as a practitioner, my experience working in the not-for-profit sector and the child and family sector as well.

I think from my experience and from talking to services, we know that needs assessment is something that's often done informally. So we might see a number of clients present with an issue that is being met by our current services or our current suite of services. Or we might hear from another agency about an emerging issue. Or we might hear from clients about an issue that they have that isn't being addressed. We might be doing a little bit of informal consultation with our colleagues or with a few community members and we might design a program or service or alter our existing service to kind of address this service gap.

The problem with this is that it can be a little ad hoc, so we can end with up a fragmented system. Or with overlap between our service offerings, and there might groups in the community whose needs aren't being met or groups in the community whose needs are a bit less visible, whose needs we aren't meeting. So what is a needs assessment? And this is the definition here that I've taken from a practice resource that I wrote. You can have a look at that in your further reading, it was just published probably about a month ago.

So I said in this resource that, 'A needs assessment is a systematic process that provides information about social needs or issues in a place or population group. And determines which issues should be prioritised for action.' So let's unpack that a little bit. When I say it's a systematic process, what I mean is that it's a planned and a structured process that could be repeated. And in theory, you would get a similar outcome. Although, we know that context change and individuals and communities change quite quickly so you might not get the same result.

But what I'm saying is, it's a systematic process. So you've got a plan for what you're going to do. You've got a plan for the data that you're going to collect. How you're going to analyse that data, how you're going to prioritise decisions and you follow that process. So it's a systematic process, it's about social needs or issues. And social issues, I'm using here is a very broad term. So it could be in the health space, we might be talking about health issues such as, high rates of smoking. We might be talking about school readiness. We might be talking low literacy.

We could be talking about something to do with child development. And this is taking place in a place or in a population group. So we're really moving beyond individual assessment, and we're talking about communities not individuals. So we're talking about communities or groups within the communities. And finally, a needs assessment is really action orientated. So we're talking about determining issues that should be prioritised for action. So we're doing a needs assessment for the explicit purpose of allocating or reallocating resources or designing or redesigning our services or our service offerings.

So a needs assessment requires an investment of time and it requires an investment of resources. So why would we do it? So I talked about how we intend to do needs assessment, informally or not at all and a challenge of a doing a needs assessment in a non-systematic or an informal way is that we end up with our resources allocated or our services being designed based on things like: personal preference or political pressure or kind of sticking with the status quo and doing what we've always done or relying on the intuition of individuals rather than being a kind of data-driven understanding of what the community actually wants and what the community actually needs.

And this is kind of goes to this diagram here on the right-hand side. So as professionals, as practitioners, we have a huge amount of skills and knowledge and knowledge about communities that comes from our practice. But we kind of only have line of sight over our own specific areas a lot of the time. So a child protection worker will see a lot of child abuse and neglect cases. and see this as a really important or preeminent issue in the community. Or a mental health worker might see a lot of young people with mental issues and really see this as an issue that should be prioritised.

So I guess, what I'm saying here and what we see here in this diagram is that this practice wisdom is incredibly important, the expertise and skills and knowledge that we have from the work that we do but it's really only one-third of an evidence-informed approach. So you see in this diagram here, that the other two-thirds of an evidence-informed approach are made up of research evidence.

So what does the literature say and lived experience? So really important to be accessing kind of the context expertise of children and families and young people who are experiencing these issues that we're interesting in learning more about. And a good quality needs assessment will utilise each of those three forms of evidence. So why would we do it? There's kind of two outcomes here that I want to talk about. And Paul will talk about this a little bit more.

So the first outcome is that a needs assessment gives us, as practitioners and working in the sector, it gives us information so that we can do our job better. So we're going to collect data, we're going to prioritise needs so that we, as a service, can deliver services better. So through doing a needs assessment, we can work in a less reactive way. So it opens up space for us to work more in the prevention and more in the early intervention space. A needs assessment, having a comprehensive understanding of community needs really gives us an evidence-based foundation for the work that we're doing. for our programs, our policies and our services. And it ultimately leads to more effective programs. So we're going to have programs that are relevant, that are credible, that are appropriate, that adequately address the current needs in a community or in a population group. And this starts kind of going towards our second outcome, but a needs assessment can be used to build support to address issues.

So we can kind of build momentum to address a particular issue. Or we can advocate for funding, you know, we can build momentum with government, with all levels of government., with partner agencies, with community members. And the second outcome, and I think Paul will talk about this quite a bit more. but the second outcome, really comes when we take a community development approach to a needs assessment. And this is around community building. So Jim Ife talks about the empowerment that individuals can experience when they're supported to define their own needs through a needs assessment process.

So if we work collaboratively with community members and groups, and if we do this using community development principles and practices we're not just collecting data that helps us do our job of service delivery better, but we're actually contributing to building social capital and we're increasing community cohesion in the communities that we're working with.

So when would we do a needs assessment? I think most commonly, we think of a needs assessment as a tool for planning. So to inform design of our programs, policies and services. And we can do this, kind of, anywhere from the level of our programs to kind of more organisationally or we can work regionally as well. We can use needs assessment as a tool to gain entry into a new community, to build relationships with a new community that we haven't worked with before. But we can also use a needs assessment to kind of assess the relevance of an existing program or service or an existing suite services that we're offering. We know that communities change, we see this a lot with gentrification in urban areas.

The demographics in a community change, the needs of a community change. The community context changes, so we do need to check in over time and see how we're going. And a needs assessment can be a really useful way of doing that. I do just want to talk briefly, just for one slide, about what need actually is and this can be a little theoretical, so you know, hang in there. Or if you want to learn more about this, I do talk about this a little more in the needs assessment practice resource o you can go and have a look at it there.

But I want to say here is that, the need is the difference between our current state or what currently is and this ideal state of what should be. So a needs assessment is a value judgment because what is needed or what we need really depends on our values and on our world view. And our needs change over time and over place. I think this cartoon kind of gets to this point. In many parts of Australia today access to the internet is absolutely essentially but this is different to 10 or 20 years ago and is different. Definitely different in some parts of the world, and in some parts of Australia today.

So what we're saying is that needs are subjective and this ideal state, this idea of what should be really depends on our vantage point and on who we are we're sitting and how we're looking at things. In some circumstances, this ideal state of what should be is a bit more fixed. And I think we see this a bit in kind of a health context. And the example I have here of birth weight of babies. So we have a standardised and accepted healthy weight range for newborn infants. If a baby is born below that weight range, we take steps, we have interventions to bring that baby up to within that healthy range of birth weight. But if we consider something like child wellbeing, it becomes more difficult and a bit more contentious to kind of determine need. So different people are going to have different definitions of child well-being, and what that consists of and different ideas about what is an acceptable level of child wellbeing. I want to distinguish here as well between two types of need. So that's the need we've just talking about. This difference between what is and what should be and then, the other type of need being the action or the intervention or the strategy that we're going to take to address that need.

So very much in a ‘needs assessment’, we're talking about the first type of need. The difference between what is and what should be. And we're focused on identifying those needs and prioritizing areas of work. We want to avoid kind of jumping to solutions, but that's something that you would get to later in the process.

So assets and needs. So, when we talk about need, we're really talking what is lacking and this sole focus on problems can be really disempowering. We do a lot of talking now about strength-based approaches. So a community development approach or a strength-based approach might consider assets, or would consider assets alongside needs. An asset-based community development approach or an ABCD approach might focus exclusively on assets and work to build assets through the community development work there. And assets are really things in a local area that are for the benefit of the community. It can tangible things like your infrastructure, your spaces, and your services.

And it can be less tangible things, you know, your resources such as your community networks and relationships and your individual and your group skills. And the asset map, if you can see there on the right-hand side of the screen. Is quite a common way of identifying and mapping those assets. So, on my first slide where I talked about a definition of a ‘needs assessment’ I said that, it should be systematic. Meaning that you should have a plan for what you're going to do., the data that you're going to collect, how you going analyse, how you going to make decisions.

Obviously, you can't predict everything that will happen, but these six steps here are steps that I developed and are published in the practice guide. And I drew these from literature and from practice. So we've really developed these as a bit of a guide to help you plan. You can adapt to these as required for a context that you're working in. So you'd start by scoping a needs assessment, you determine the assessment criteria. So the assessment criteria, the things that are important for your community or for your context and you'll use those to prioritise the list of needs that you end up with.

Then you want to plan for your data collection. You want to collect and analyse your data and you want to present that data to your decision-makers, whoever they might be. You want to apply the criteria that we talked about in step two. And use those criteria to prioritise the needs and decide and which needs you want to take action on. And finally, you want to identify your next steps and you want to report back to the community and to the people that you collected data from or the people that you're working with and for. So you don't have to use all six of those steps or you can adapt to them as needed for your context. But I think what I'm saying here is important, is to have a plan for how you're going to know a needs assessment. And to follow that plan as much as possible.

So that's actually all from me. There's my references because I'm a good diligent researcher. And I will hand over now to Paul. Who's going to talk a bit more about his work and the work of The Benevolence Society.


Thanks Jess, and good afternoon everyone. I'm Paul Harkin with The Benevolence Society and I'm coming to you today from Glebe in Sydney. I just want to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that I am on here today, the Gadigal of the Eora Nation. I'm paying my respects and those of The Benevolence Society to elders, past, present and still emerging. Just really quickly on The Benevolence Society. So we are a not profit NGO organisation that's been around since 1813, so a little bit of history in this country.

And you know through that time have been all about achieving positive change for communities right across that period from you know, advocating for the pension back in early part of last century through to women's health issues and we ran the Royal Hospital for Women here in Sydney for a period of time. And so for us, that sort of while we do service delivery right across the field we have a particular interest in sort of pioneering new solutions to social problems. Really thinking about where are not having the impact that we should be having and what are some of the innovative solutions to that, and how do we campaign around that.

So we have a number of campaigns at the moment around the numbers of children in out of home care and particularly in relation to ageing, poverty and ageing, the lack of sort of broad agenda in ageing. We deliver a community and home-based services to more than 60,000 clients' right across their life stages. The areas that we work in are sort of broadly three spaces. So we've got the childhood and family space so we do a broad set of activities right from your early intervention community development type activities right through to intensive family support in out of home care services.

We have a large disability team. We work with adults and children with quite significant and complex intellectual disabilities generally. We provide sort of allied health positive behaviour support to those individuals through the NDIS. And we work with older people, we provide care to people in their homes.

Me, as I was introduced at the beginning. I'm an on and off community development worker for 20 something years at this stage. While, my actual job mightn't always be strictly speaking, a community development job, I'm always looking to understand how I can bring community development lens into what I'm doing. And so where the sort of community building opportunities is what I'm doing. In The Benevolence Society, we do a far bit of community development from programs such as Communities for Children. Which I'll talk about in a couple of moments through to we run some early year centres in Queensland which are sort of an in-community partnership integrated set of services for families with young children where we're bringing services on site that young families might need and working with those to develop new solutions either to engage families or to better provide support for those families. We also run ECEI, which is the early sort of intervention pathway for NDIS for children. And we run that in a number of sites in Queensland. That has a very large community engagement needs assessment separate capacity-building aspect to it and so it's been a great opportunity to bring some bring some good community development properties and principles and that.

And then, in terms of the organisation as a whole and my role as Director of Community Development was to begin to think through how do all our services, so all our services, and I'm sure many of you listening today given your services are based in community they need to answer the community that they're in. They need to connect to it in some way.

They need to, where possible be responsive to that. So actually how do we build some capacity in our own teams, to just do that a little bit better? There's limits of course to how much of that we can do. Depends on what we're funded to do. But actually, how can we have a better eye to the community that we're in, and what skills and supports do. Generally managers are team leaders or some senior staff in that site, what support do they need to be able to play that kind of a role? I think what I probably want to start off by saying that's what I want to share with you today is coming from probably the mistakes we've made, I'm certainly not going say I or others in the organisation are experts in this space but it's what we learned over the years or what I've learned over the years in trying to do this work and I recognise that from any of you out there. Some of this stuff will be just your bread and butter. So, I apologise I'm telling how to suck eggs. But hopefully, I can contribute a little bit of something. I wanted to start off with, just this point that we can approach needs assessment from technical how should we do this. And we absolutely need to do that but it's also important that we consider that it's an opportunity for community building. So one of the things that I'm continuing going on and on about is when we're interacting with community, how are we contributing to the strength of that community in that process? So it can't just be about what are we getting, but what are we contributing as well. And needs assessment is often, so the first foray of a process into a community and so, how can we think about that as a means of building community while doing the needs assessment because I think it will ultimately strengthen the progress of that needs assessment and what you're getting out of it, will certainly get better engagement but it also means that the engagement is more meaningful, the conversations you get to have, the way you can have those conversations, the way you can explore the needs is much more meaningful when there's a bit of community building in there. And I think the reason for that is this first slide because it's all about trust.

And so, you know, what I found is that communities where we have built better relationships and have stronger trust with that community, our ability to do a much more meaningful needs assessment is much greater. The outcomes we get are so much stronger. One of the things that's really interested me since I moved to Australia, is just the importance of the good old barbecue. I certainly came from a country in which barbecue tendered to mean running for cover in the rain. Cooking the barbecue at the back door. So you'd get a little bit of cover from the rain. And then eating the barbecue at the kitchen table.

So I loved coming here and how important a barbecue is to community development and just that, physical showing up, being out there in community, being seen, having your face seen, having maybe the name of your organisation or the branding of your organisation seen, beginning to be something in the community that people can connect with, and over time begin to build a relationship with and build some trust with. And the barbecues are a really important tool for that.

A community development worker said to me recently in the organisation, that in many ways the barbecue is our shop front. You know, and we all know how important the shop front is. You know, that everyone likes to have that ‘High Street’ presence because the sense that it gives better engagement or access to our clients or our customers or whoever's coming to us. The barbecue is the shop front for most community projects. It's that really visible place where people can get a sense of who we are, what we're about, what we value and just a safe space for people to talk and have a bit of fun.

The second piece is just the importance of showing up. You know, time and time again, you know we learn that we just need to show up to things and be present in community. Going to other people's barbecues, going to other events, participating in school activities, participating in the things that are going to run in that community. So that we're connecting with the other providers in that area, but that community is also seeing us do that. And seeing us contribute to that community in some way. We've got to be able to respond.

So, in one our sites, Campbelltown, we were funded and I'll talk more about communities with children, but we had a Communities for Children site which for any of you that know it is it about working with families with children under 12. But we were very keen that our building in community would be a place in which anyone could come and seek support, we could not turn people away. We could not necessarily work with people over the longer term, but we could certainly try and sort of resolve for that moment, what that person was bringing to us and that might be finding somewhere else for that go, it might may be about us taking it on, whatever it was, but actually first responding to what people are bringing to us even if it's not directly in our responsibility.

That just became really important to us. And it could be that there are other better able to provide that support in communities so we just made sure we sort of connected that person in with that support. But being able to respond when somebody asks, was vital for us. And in the final piece, in terms of this whole sort of foundation from me, of anything else that we may try and do in needs assessment is gatekeepers, is knowing who the gatekeepers in communities are. And just that getting out into communities you begin to see who the gatekeepers are. So the gatekeepers are people who others look to. Who have broad relationships in community, who have trust of sections of the community, who have the ear of the sections of the community, who can communicate to them. And so, it's that sort of shortcut in many ways into those sort of key people, into those sections of the community that you mightn't be able to access straight away. So it's important we identify who those gatekeepers are. We really connect with them, and begin to understand how we can support them. And how they can support us, and how we can work together.

So I just want to talk a little about communities for children. So communities for children is a place based approach to tackling disadvantage and we, in doing that, we had to go into a community and develop essentially, a community plan that responded to the needs of families with children under 12. Communities with children have been around for quite a long time at this stage but certainly, at various points in its journey we go back and start this process again, which is about really starting, from my point of view most communities that we tend to be involved in and have been consulted within an inch of their lives these days.

So we start with a bit of a desktop analyse of the demographics first of all of that community because they're continually changing. And secondly, really beginning to look at what are the other consultations that have already been done. How old were they? And really starting to map out and get a bit of an understanding of what the gaps in our knowledge is at this point. It also helps us identify some of the gatekeepers we've talked about and some of those key other stakeholders we need to be engaging with was for me the next piece then at that stakeholder mapping piece and really beginning to analyse who are the key players in that community? What do we know about them, what is our relationship like with them?

So it's a real stakeholder mapping and assessing and prioritising activity. And beginning to understand where we need to direct our attentions. And this is all about building those foundations on top of the trust that you've already been starting to build. Which then allows you to sort of put in place a bit of a consultation plan to get you to that needs assessment. We had to come up with multiple ways that you can consult with a community. You can't just have one or two because everyone has different ways they want to connect with you.

And so, you know, you certainly want to include your very basic survey which you'll ideally want to have both online and in paper. We found that when doing surveys it can be time consuming but we'll often need to sit with people. It's not enough to just give somebody a survey depending on what you're asking in the content. But if you really want some sort of genuine interaction, sitting with people and doing the survey with them has been very very powerful.

Community forums are a more formal way of really having debate and discussion. And the beauty of course is that can feed off one another and it can be quite creative. You can also, and would need to have just your less formal sort of community events. The good old barbecue or something similar. And again, you want diversity in that because people want to go to different things and that's just a less formal way for people to give some more generalised feedback. Other providers, so our partners in community and communities for children are really really important in any kind of consultation or needs assessment we're doing.

These are people who already have relationships in the community. If what you're trying to gather information in requires a level of trust from people, then, you know, your partners are likely to have that people with people that you don't have that kind of relationship with. So actually providing them tools and templates and agreeing a process for them to consider gather information for you, and feed that back into it. Then we sort of bring all that data together and workshop our findings and our understandings. So it's going back in again and checking what we're taking from, what's come through, really understanding the themes in that and beginning to sort of map out responses and how you might then respond to that needs that you're getting.

A couple of things that we've been – I felt like certainly in my time anyway, and I'm sure they've got a lot better at this, it's been a couple of years since I was involved in this. But at my time, I really felt like we didn't get right our communication. And we didn't get right our reporting back. And they're really vital in terms of how do we communicate what we're doing and why we're doing throughout the process. So we can be quite good at the beginning of the process, but actually how are we communicating towards the end of the process and beyond it. And thinking quite strategically about the various channel that people get their information from. And so it has to be multi-stranded, that communication.

It can be informal through your stakeholders and other services, and formal through online flyers, newsletters, whatever it might be that's appropriate to the space that you're working in. And in that then, how are we reporting progress? People might want to come along to something, provide their information, but they don't want to engage long term and that's perfectly fine, but they will want to know what's happened to it. So how are closing that loop and feeding back in. And then how are we reporting over the longer term.

I think the biggest challenge in doing this sort of broad consultation activity is making sure we've got the right people participating in it. You know, the danger is we often just consult those who turn. So how do we ensure that we're consulting those that aren't turning up? Those that somehow, the we – we often call them the hard to engage, but in fact we've put a barrier of some kind. Or there's a barrier that we created or that exists that limits their ability to engage with us. And so we need to begin to really, in that initial desktop analysis, get a sense of who this community is.

So what are the demographics telling us, what are our partners telling us about the various sub-groups within that community, the various categories are people that might exist in that community that we would need to make sure we hear the views from. And in that sort of analysis, we can begin to try and map what those barriers might be. And often our partners or gatekeepers can be pretty good in telling us what those barriers are and giving us some suggestions about how we can address those barriers.

We literally planned this out or did plan this out, it's not enough to just do it in some informal way. It's really helpful to actually map it. To map who we think might not participate in this process. What their barriers to participating are? And some strategies to actually address those that we can track and understand if they're working or not. And so, in Rosemeadow and Ambarvale we had a number of communities that we felt might not participate and we had particular strategies around how we going to engage those. Very often, I have to say it did involve just gatekeepers, just people who already had a relationship in that community or with that set of people.

That's a vitally important perfect example of the Aboriginal community, really developing some trust and some understanding with key elders and senior people in the community who could help us understand how to consult and engage properly. Now we often, so as I said, we're often asking people who are engaged with to invite their friends to our activities. So that's sort of one strategy, we find a young parent, for example, we're trying to get that young parent into bring other young parents into an activity.

And that's definitely a helpful thing to do. And that's certainly, you know, it's part of a plan. It's one of those structured responses that we take to try and ensure diversity. However, in one experience I had a couple years ago, some years ago, we could go one step further which is actually go to them, and not expect that group to come to us somehow. I was setting up a credit union back in the UK, sometime back and we took the idea of Tupperware party, and kind of inverted as a means of – we needed to get out and talk to people about what a credit union was.

It's not a concept that is particular prevalent there. And we needed to talk to people about what it was and get them engaged in the process. And we used the Tupperware party as a means of doing that. We'd find one person who did get engaged, who showed some interest in it. She or he would agree to host a party in their house. We would bring the wine, I'm not sure if you could do that these days. But we would bring the wine, the food and the snacks. And it allowed us to have an opportunity to really provide a presentation to a group of people in a comfortable space, with their friends about what we were doing. And we'd stay for a little while for questions, and then leave them to it. And it was just was a really powerful way, we connected with people we would have never connected with otherwise. They would have not come to our meeting. So it's just a good way of deepening our connections or engagements with some people.

And look, the process responses here to ensuring diversity is about that building of trust that we talked about in the last slide. So it's about being in a space that seems to safer and more engaging. It comes out of thinking about it structurally. So how do we structure the way we work that ensures people who might not normally participate are. But actually we learn from that process about what it is, what we're doing and how we're behaving and some of the structured decisions we're taking, the barriers that those are creating. So it's a learning process that helps us do that better in the longer term.

And then finally, this is just to that broader point. So that balance in a product and process, so you know, for anyone's that from a community development background this is the, you know, the big debate I suppose. The big opportunity is the need to balance the end goal, what we're working towards with what we can achieve in working towards the end goal. This is for me where that opportunity to build community comes in to needs assessment. It comes into pretty much anything we're doing in community. How are we - what about our process is improving outcomes for that community.

Again, at that thing we're seeking something from them. So how are we contributing something back into that community again? So, needs assessment itself has, I suppose, the potential to generate energy around an issue. And it should do that. So in my mind, it has the potential to engage in some community building work. In fact for me, the best needs assessment should include an eye to community building. So if communities are giving us their time to give us this information, what are we giving back to them? Because sadly not all needs assessment leads to change, certainly not in the short term. So there's the opportunity to make it a process that contributes to community infrastructure.

So I want to talk about the MADD action and the process we went through a few years ago in Rosemeadow, Ambarvale and the Communities of the Children we held a public meeting in that community. The government had provided some additional funding to be specifically targeted at families where domestic violence, mental health issues and drug alcohol issues were needs that were complicating our ability to support those families.

And so we wanted to go back and sort of consult with the community to help us understand how to sort of address this and make use of the responding. They're not simple topics to talk about. And we discussed for a long time whether we should just have a public meeting and then discuss it or whether we should be up front about what we were doing. And we ultimately decided that we would be up front about what we wanted to talk about. We wanted to hear what their views of about these issues. How they impacted families and how well the service system was dealing with it.

So we weren't unknown in the community, we'd been working there for a few years. We'd built relationships with people and other community organisations. However, we still weren't sure whether other people would come. So we decided to use a consultation framework, known as world café or a version of it potentially our own version of it to guide the discussion and tease apart the issues. So on the morning of the meeting, a large group of community members, including some high school students and service provides attended this sort of community hall to debate how these issues were playing out.

So there's three rounds that we used in this world café. I do think it's a useful tool for dealing with these sorts of complex issues at an early stage when you're in the gathering stage. Round one, we had three separate tables. One was discussing DV, the other discussing mental issues and the final discussing substance abuse. Each table had a conversation how that issue was being experienced with commentary added to butcher's paper. The paper then went up on walls and people were invited to read them more closely and add more counts.

This allows for very different levels of engagement suiting the different kinds of people. And how we all sort of engage with issues in different ways.

Round two, the tables were formed again. And again, they discussed what the barriers or issues were in addressing this. Then they fed that back to the group and there was a bit of group discussion. It went off on the wall, and people individually could engage with the other conversations and give their own thoughts and comments on it.

Round three, the tables were formed again and we discussed possible solutions. So we followed the same process again, but at the end we asked people to prioritise the data. Mostly the solutions, but it could be from any part of the conversation. What was amazing about this process was the honesty first of all, which people spoke about. These were difficult issues, but participants spoke from the heart and sometimes from very personal experience. We didn't know everyone in the room, but everyone knew someone else in the room.

So the networks underpinning the event were really really important in creating that synergy that allowed for a level of honesty in such a complex issue. What was also fascinating was the suggestions people had for how certain challenges could be addressed. More often than not, service provider who were also in the rooms so the service providers were invited too. And they had offered them down generally with frustration that the service was already available. But for residents in the room experiencing these issues, they were not aware of it, however much the services felt they were addressing it. So that was a learning in itself.

Now there was an energy created on the day. Residents were motivated, they were motivated by a new understanding that seemed to be developing about these issues and how a community like there's could take some occasion. So we asked whether they wanted to continue meetings and discuss the learnings from the meetings. And the answer was a resounding yes. So the first action group was held a week later. Eight community members at this meeting and they continued to meet regularly over the next of couple of months to design a plan for how they could a voice of action and advocacy on these issues in their community and they formed the MADD action group, which is an acronym for mental health, alcohol, drugs and domestic violence.

In large part, they weren't interested in more services. They wanted to tackle, and interesting that we often go straight to the more services solutions. They weren't interested in more services, they wanted to tackle the community's connection to those services. This meant that looking at community understanding of the issue and the service system, addressing stigma and referral pathways. And increasing a focus on teenagers who they felt have been overlooked by the system. Over the next 18 months, they held various community events to raise awareness on the issues including the community's first white ribbon day event.

They brought TAFE in to run an introduction to community work, so we really wanted to invest in this group, in their own capacity to manage this process themselves. So we've got TAFE in to address community work course. So they had to skill themselves up and be a more effective action group. We also made a small pod of funding available. Not for them to spend themselves, but to invite agencies in the community to be able to shift of change what they were doing to address the issues that were being addressed in the plan. And to be able to provide some funding to that.

NAB group managed that fund and decisions around who got that funding. So, that of course, is a more involved process. And a lot of needs assessment made allowed for, but even just having that aid to one – you know, the importance of networks and trust in the relationships that need to be in place. For some of this – depends on the needs assessment, for some of this needs assessment to occur. The opportunity to think through, how can we support what happens after because that needs assessment and will generate energy. And how can we support that into the future? And how can invest in that community's ability to see that process through.

And so that is the end of my contribution.


Thank you, Paul and Jessica for that really interesting presentation. It's time now for questions and answers section of the Webinar. We've already received some great questions but please keep submitting them. And we'll try to get to them. Any questions that we don't get to now, will be answered in our online forum, but please again let us know if you don't want your question or first name to be published on the forum. So the first question that we've got. Which I think is possibly for Jess, but also, I think Paul will have good thoughts on it as well. Is, how do you influence internal staff to move beyond their assumptions of what a group needs and to engage with and use the results of a needs analysis? Jess, do you have thoughts from a research perspective before we ask Paul?


Sorry, Sharnee do you want to read me that one again.


How do you influence internal staff to move beyond their assumptions of what a group needs and instead engage with and use the results of the needs analysis?


That's an interesting question, and I think we kind of hear similar questions to this kind of, in a broader kind of evaluation context quite a lot. I would say, that just as it's important to kind of partner and engage with community. I think it's important for senior staff in an organisation to kind of partner and engage internally with their own staff. So really, I think it's about bringing – as it is bringing participants on a journey a long with you, I think it's about bringing staff along on a journey with you, and really engaging staff in processes of what you might undertake a needs assessment, what kind of information you might find out and how it could be useful. And I think, that learning by doing in this case is really important. So, when you kind of start to engage with communities and engage with the information and data that's out there I think that that is kind of the most effective tool and an increase in engagement.


Great, thanks Jess. Paul, do you have any insights you'd like to add to that question?


Yeah, look, I would come at it from a, I suppose a change management perspective in some way. So I want to understand what the reasons are, I suppose for being resistant to it. Is it a question of the, you know, do they mistrust you're telling or what we're telling them, what the data's telling them. Is there a mistrust in the process that people have gone through to come up with something that's challenging of thinking about how the group should run? The second thing I would ask, is what's going to be the impact on them. So if they do need to change as a result of the needs assessment or the needs data, what's the impact going to be on them. And can we pre-empt some of that? And find solutions to that in advance of it. And I suppose, the big one is really how can we engage them in the vision of what the data's telling us. So I think, when the data is strong enough and visual enough and making a strong enough argument, it can be hard to avoid. So actually, how do you engage them in the vision of what that data's telling us.


Great, thanks Paul, thanks Jess. Another question that we've got, I might direct it to you Paul in the first instance. I'm wondering if you can share any experiences or insights around whether you think its good practise in the process of planning a needs assessment to use a co-design approach with the community. You spoke a little bit about some elements of this, I think Paul. And where do you think this is sort of best placed? Do you think it's best done once the needs assessment data has been collected or at a different stage?


I think if you've got the ability to co-design a needs assessment process with community, absolutely, like without a shadow of doubt. Often needs assessment – well not often, sometimes a needs assessment process can be quite cold, like in terms of somebody's coming into a community and you need to do that needs assessment. You know, being able to co-design it requires a level of relationships already in place and a level of trust already in place to be able to do that. But if you can, I mean I would believe that is a much better approach to if we can co-design it. However, I think one of the things that we need to be careful of is, is that an issue of working with who shows up. So there is a risk in co-designing, we just need to make sure who we're co-designing with. And who are we not co-designing with. So who's not in that process, and how are ensuring that our understanding of their views about how this could and couldn't work are being included.


Jess, did you have anything that you wanted to that?


Sure. I think I very much agree with Paul's said there. I think co-design, if you can, if you have those pre-existing relationships with, like Paul's saying the right people in the community, definitely, it's a very effective strategy. And I think we'd very much go to both those outcomes that Paul and I spoke about in terms of making sure you've got a good quality needs assessment. But really towards the community building outcomes that Paul was talking about as well.

I think you want to be mindful that you have adequate time and resources, if you're going to take co-design approach. Just to make sure that you can, if you're going to work with people from the community. That you really have the resources to be able to that effectively and thoroughly. And I think that kind of goes to the other part of this question, about when in the process you would do that. And I mean, co-design can – I guess there's different perspectives on this. Good to start as early as possible, if you can. And like Paul's saying, that really depends on what relationships you already have in the community. But you can for example, and I know that services that we've worked with have done co-design in terms of the way that data is collected and really used people from the community as partners in data collection and analysis, so you can kind of pick up on different elements of co-design at different stages.


Great, thanks Jess. Thanks, Paul. We've had a couple of questions that are around data and different methods of actually collecting data form the community. So apart from sort of informal ways of gathering data around community needs do either of you have any advice that you'd like to give around what other tools or methods should be used and perhaps whether there were particular agencies or departments or other community level data sources that people might want to access.


Sure, I might take that first, Sharnee. I think there's a lot of what we'd call administrative data or community level data that can be really useful. Really depends often on the kind of region, the kind of geographical region I guess, that you're working in. And whether there's going to be data sets that go into a small enough kind of unit of analysis to be meaningful to your community. So census data can be useful. I always get the acronym for this wrong, the AUDC data can be really useful. Lots of local governments publish data reports, I think profile ID is one that a lot of local governments use. There can be really useful data there. You can also look at what else is done in your region, so other agencies might have done similar reports or reports like this. Needs assessments that you can draw on, so while being mindful of their methodology. You can definitely kind of draw on those.


Did you want to add something there Paul?


The only source, and look a lot of needs assessment we would have done, would have been much more of a community building informal approach. But I found the PHNs or a number of the PHNs I've been involved in have all done sort of health needs assessments. How much they've kept those up to date I'm unsure, but I've always found them a good source of information. They tend to be a broad needs assessment of the health needs in that area, so that's been quite interesting. And then look the other thing was what I said in the presentation, which was having multiple means of gathering information directly from community members. Because people will want to participate in different ways. .


Great, that's very helpful. Thanks, Paul. We're just going to have our last question, and again I apologise to the people that we haven't gotten to the questions that you've sent through. But we will address in the forum after this presentation. So just a final question, and we've talked a lot about accessing your community obviously to inform your needs assessment. Are there any tips, perhaps Paul, for how to gather the needs if you cannot physically access that community or you can't go to the community? How do you undertake that needs assessment?


Very hardly. Look that's hard. I think, one I'd be trying to find a local partner. And maybe not to necessarily do, you know, to sort of sub-contract the needs assessment to somebody else on the ground. But at least, be able to give you some sense – you need to try and get an understanding of that community. And the various ways in which you might need to connect with it. I mean, if you're not able to get to the community at all. I think that's going to quite challenging and you're obviously doing it online, but you'd have to find some sort of local agencies to get you connected to the people that you want to sort of complete some sort of needs assessment. I mean, there are some great online tools in terms of from basic surveys through to you know, the ability to do focus groups and have meetings. I mean, most of what we do is theoretically possible to do that online these days. It's about getting people into that room, in sort of electronic room in one shape or form. So how are we bridging that gap and that's the piece that needs to be resolved. How are you getting that connection? That might be through local partners. It could be through, you know, whether any stage people can get out and do some initial engagement in that. Begin to sort of get a bit of a profile there. The needs assessment itself might be done in a more hands off way, but I suppose, I would be trying to work out how can we get some connection to the people we need to talk to even if we're doing that talking in some other form.


That might be a question that we consider a little bit further in the forum as well. Look we've run out of time. So thank you Paul and Jess. And thank you to everyone who's attended the Webinar today. Please follow the link on your screen to our website to continue the conversation. And as you leave the Webinar a short survey will open in a new window, and we greatly appreciate your feedback. I'd also like to let you know about our other upcoming Webinars. So next Wednesday, we'll be hosting called 'Extending care, supporting young people's transition from out of home care to adulthood.' And on 29 May we'll be hosting the Webinar, 'Child focused approaches when working with parents effected family of domestic violence'. And you can find Webinars and links to register on the events section of our website. Thanks everyone, and we'll see you next time.


Thank you.



The transcript is provided for information purposes only and is provided on the basis that all persons accessing the transcript undertake responsibility for assessing the relevance and accuracy of its content. Before using the material contained in the transcript, the permission of the relevant presenter should be obtained. 

The Commonwealth of Australia, represented by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), is not responsible for, and makes no representations in relation to, the accuracy of this transcript. AIFS does not accept any liability to any person for the content (or the use of such content) included in the transcript. The transcript may include or summarise views, standards or recommendations of third parties. The inclusion of such material is not an endorsement by AIFS of that material; nor does it indicate a commitment by AIFS to any particular course of action.

Slide outline

1. Needs assessment: A tool for program planning and community building 
Paul Harkin and Jessica Smart 

Please note: The views expressed in this webinar are those of the presenters, and may not reflect those of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, or the Australian Government.

2. Webinar overview

  • Define needs assessment
  • Why undertake a needs assessment
  • Definitions of need
  • Needs and assets
  • Outline the steps in a needs assessment

 3. What is a needs assessment?

“A systematic process that provides information about social needs or issues in a place or population group and determines which issues should be prioritised for action” (Smart, 2019)

4. Needs assessment – why do it?

  • Without needs assessment, resource allocation and service delivery can be:
  • Subject to political pressures
  • Subject to personal preference
  • “what we’ve always done”
  • Led by individual intuition

(Owen, 2006) 
Source: Hunter and Carlow, 2018

Text description: 

Expertise - skills and knowledge from practice

Research - current best evidence

Lived experience - the views of children and families who access services

5. Needs assessment – why do it? cont..

  • Can lead to more prevention and early intervention work and less work that is reactive (Baum, 2008)
  • Foundation for an evidence-based approach
  • More effective programs: programs that are relevant, credible, and appropriate, adequately addressing current needs
  • To advocate for funding or other forms of support
  • Build relationships among stakeholders and build support for action (Sleezer et al., 2014)
  • Contribute to citizen empowerment (Ife, 2002) and community building

6. When to do a needs assessment?

  • To inform planning and program design
  • To assess existing service offerings

7. Understanding need

  • Need = difference between “what is” and “what should be”
  • Needs are subjective
  • Some needs have commonly accepted benchmarks but many don’t
  • Needs assessment is a value judgement
  • The “need” and what is “needed” to address it

Text description:

Basic needs for survival

Then - food, water, shelter, clothing 
A homeless person, cold and unhappy sitting under a shelter with a small bowl of food at his feet.

Now - internet, food, shelter, water (optional) 
A homeless person with a laptop and he is cheering because he has free public wifi from Starbucks.

8. Needs vs assets

  • A community development approach, or a strengths-based approach considers assets as well as needs
  • Assets are things in a local area that are for the benefit of the community.

9. Steps in a needs assessment

An infographic showing the 6 steps in a needs assessment

Answer key questions: 
What is the purpose? 
Who will use the results? 
What are your resources? 
How will you involve the community? 
Who will be the decision-makers?

Develop a list of criteria that are meaningful for your context. 
These criteria will enable you to evaluate and prioritise needs.

Identify the data you will need – qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods? 
Identify any existing sources of data. 
Develop a plan for collecting and analysing data.

Collect and analyse your data. 
Synthesise and present data to your decision makers

Determine your decision-making strategy. 
Meet with the decision-making group and apply the criteria. 
Prioritise needs.

Identify issues for the prioritised needs; risk/protective factors, causes and consequences. 
Explore the evidence for effective interventions/approaches. 
Report on your findings to stakeholders.

10. References

Baum, F. (2008). The new public health. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press

Hunter, C., & Carlow, M. (2018). Knowledge translation strategy: Emerging Minds National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies [unpublished. internal document only].

Owen, J. M. (2006). Program evaluation: Forms and approaches. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin.

Sleezer, C. M., Fuss-Eft., D. F., & Gupta, K. (2014). A practical guide to needs assessment. 3rd Edition. Wiley: San Francisco

Smart, J. (2019). Needs Assessment. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies

11. About the Benevolent Society 

Australia's first charity 
Helping achieve positive change since 1813

Pioneering new solutions to social problems

Community and home-based service to more than 60,000 clients through all stages of their life.

12. Who we support

Children and families 
We support families to create the home life they really want for their children and themselves

People with disabilities and carers 
We support people with disabilities to make significant strides towards their goals

Older people and carers 
We support older people to live at home confidently and safely and we support carers.

13. The importance of trust

  • The trusty BBQ
  • Showing up
  • Responding
  • Gate-keepers

14. Ensuring diversity

  • Who should we be engaging with?
  • What are their barriers?
  • Structure responses
  • Process responses

15. Balancing product and process

Madd Action Group

  • Shape community agenda
  • Where is the energy - contribute to vision
  • Building skill
  • Investing in infrastructure
Related resources

Related resources

  • Needs assessment  
    This practice resource is designed for practitioners and policy makers who want to learn more about the needs assessment process or how to conduct a needs assessment.
  • Children’s agency in community: A review of literature and the policy and practice context [PDF]  
    This report explores approaches to supporting children living in disadvantaged communities, with a focus on how adults can engage and support children’s agency in communities.
  • Children, communities and social capital in Australia  
    This research report explores children’s views and experiences of community and aims to increase understanding of community and community strengthening initiatives from a child-centred perspective.
  • What is community development?  
    This CFCA resource sheet provides an overview of what community development is and provides guidance about its intended outcomes and how to use it.
  • Community engagement: A key strategy for improving outcomes for Australian families  
    This CFCA paper seeks to clarify what community engagement involves, how it relates to other ideas and practices, and the role it can play in improving outcomes for children and families.


Paul Harkin is Director of Community Development at The Benevolent Society. He has a Master of Community Development, 20 years’ experience working in the community sector in Ireland, the UK and Australia, and is a current MBA candidate at the University of Sydney. His present role with The Benevolent Society includes: supporting their community-focused services, so that each service understands and is connected to the individual communities in which they are based; understanding their impact; and creating partnerships with others that improve outcomes for clients and communities.

Paul’s career has given him the privilege of engaging with strong, resilient communities in urban and rural settings – communities that work with their strengths to address their challenges. He has engaged with communities to design new solutions to the issues they face, through needs assessment, collaboration and advocacy. Some of these have included: the establishment of social enterprise responses; multi-agency partnerships to tackle significant community disadvantage; community consultation and planning; service design and procurement; social action networks seeking to change views and systems; and innovative solutions to address access issues.

Jessica Smart Research Fellow | Defence and Veteran Family Research | Child and Family Evidence

Jessica Smart is a Senior Research Officer at AIFS working across multiple projects with a focus on evaluation capacity building. Her previous work has been in the not-for-profit sector, developing, delivering and evaluating community development and population health projects. Recent projects have been in the area of sexual health and respectful relationships with people with intellectual disability, with a focus on engaging community members as partners in research, program delivery and evaluation. Jessica recently completed a Master of Public Health at the University of Melbourne.