Developing a Plan for Assessing Local Needs and Resources

Developing a plan for identifying local needs and resources can help changemakers understand how to improve their communities in the most logical and efficient ways possible. This section provides a guide for developing and implementing a plan to assess the needs of communities and the resources available to them.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY NEEDS AND RESOURCES?

Needs can be defined as the gap between what is and what should be. A need can be felt by an individual, a group, or an entire community. It can be as concrete as the need for food and water or as abstract as improved community cohesiveness. An obvious example might be the need for public transportation in a community where older adults have no means of getting around town. More important to these same adults, however, might be a need to be valued for their knowledge and experience. Examining situations closely helps uncover what is truly needed, and leads toward future improvement.

Resources, or assets, can include individuals, organizations and institutions, buildings, landscapes, equipment — anything that can be used to improve the quality of life. The mother in Chicago who volunteers to organize games and sports for neighborhood children after school, the Kenyan farmers’ cooperative that makes it possible for farmers to buy seed and fertilizer cheaply and to send their produce directly to market without a middle man, the library that provides books and Internet access to everyone, the bike and walking path where city residents can exercise — all represent resources that enhance community life. Every individual is a potential community asset, and everyone has assets that can be used for community building.

WHY DEVELOP A PLAN FOR ASSESSING LOCAL NEEDS AND RESOURCES?

There are really two questions here: The first is Why assess needs and resources? Answers include:

  • It will help you gain a deeper understanding of the community. Each community has its own needs and assets, as well as its own culture and social structure — a unique web of relationships, history, strengths, and conflicts that defines it. A community assessment helps to uncover not only needs and resources but the underlying culture and social structure that will help you understand how to address the community’s needs and utilize its resources.
  • An assessment will encourage community members to consider the community’s assets and how to use them, as well as the community’s needs and how to address them.  That consideration can (and should) be the first step in their learning how to use their own resources to solve problems and improve community life.
  • It will help you make decisions about priorities for program or system improvement. It would obviously be foolhardy to try to address community issues without fully understanding what they are and how they arose.  By the same token, failing to take advantage of community resources not only represents taking on a problem without using all the tools at your disposal to solve it, but misses an opportunity to increase the community’s capacity for solving its own problems and creating its own change.
  • It goes a long way toward eliminating unpleasant surprises down the road.  Identifying needs and resources before starting a program or initiative means that you know from the beginning what you’re dealing with, and are less likely to be blindsided later by something you didn’t expect.

The second question is: Why develop a plan for that assessment? Some reasons why you should:

  • It allows you to involve community members from the very beginning of the process. This encourages both trust in the process and community buy-in and support, not only of the assessment, but of whatever actions are taken as a result of it. Full community participation in planning and carrying out an assessment also promote leadership from within the community and gives voice to those who may feel they have none.
  • An assessment is a great opportunity to use community-based participatory research, further involving community members and increasing community capacity.
  • A good plan will provide an easy-to-follow road map for conducting an accurate assessment.  Planning ahead will save time and effort in carrying out the process.
  • A planning process will give community members the opportunity to voice their opinions, hopes, and fears about the community. Their idea of priorities might be different from those of professionals, but they shouldn’t be ignored.

It may be important to address the community’s priorities first, in order to establish trust and show respect, even if you don’t believe that those priorities are in fact the most important issues.  Building relationships and credibility may be more important at the beginning of a long association than immediately tackling what seems to be the most pressing need.  Among other things, community members’ priorities may be the right ones: they may see underlying factors that you don’t yet understand.

 

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