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It All Starts Here: How Better Needs Assessment Tools Can Help Your Foundation Say Bye to Sunk Cost

Let's cut to the chase. If you want to maximize your foundation's impact, the single most important step is needs assessment - the process of uncovering the desired outcome of a target group and what support remains necessary to achieve that outcome.

Let's say your foundation is investing in increasing educational attainment, and you're trying to find out how to improve the outcomes of low-income first-generation immigrant students in Texas. Your research team conducts a needs assessment and tells you the attainment gap as well as the additional resources necessary to better support these students.

If you're not sure that your investment based on the needs assessment will create high social return, here's a quick self-check. Below is a list of things that will reduce your social return on investment (SROI):

  1. You're not certain if your goal ( to increase educational attainment ) is also a priority of these students.

  2. You're not sure what approaches to supply the resources to the students will create the biggest difference. For example, how do you choose between weekend tutoring programs and on-demand tutoring?

  3. You're not sure if different groups of immigrants, from Latin America for example, have different priorities and preferred approaches.

The main idea is this. Good needs assessment helps you identify the quantity and types of services you can invest in. Great needs assessment helps you map out a surprise-free pathway between your investment now and maximal outcome improvement and SROI down the road.

Below are some tools to turn your needs assessment from good to great. Share these tools with your needs-assessment folks and you will see the difference in the insight they create.

Tool #1: Use needs assessment to align your investment strategies with the priorities of your target audience.

If you have ever received feedback from your staff or grantees that the target audience is not so keen on participating in the services being offered and you'd like to change that, then you need to reassess the relevancy of the work you have invested in.

You can do this in many formats - listening sessions, interviews, or focus groups. The format matters less, as long as you remember to let the participants guide the process. This looks like asking a very short list of prompt questions and a lot of follow-up questions based on what the participants have shared.

For example, you can ask them to tell you about a recent tough decision. Be prepared that what they'll say has nothing to do with the area you want to invest in. And ask a series of follow-up questions about how they come to understand these options. What they say will tell you not only their life goals but also their challenges, both pieces critical for you to decide how to invest in improving the outcome you care about.

If you're thinking: Sylvia, this approach is too costly and risky. I'm spending time collecting information that I might not be able to use. Consider this, yes, you might not be able to immediately adjust your strategies. Organizational change takes time. But if you think about the alternative, which is the growing sunk cost of offering low-impact services, this option makes a lot of sense for your mid- and long-term organizational success.

Tool #2: Use needs assessment to help your grantees create more relevant programs.

If your grantees are struggling with low service usage by the intended audience, you can use this needs assessment tool to help them. The key is to focus on reconstructing the daily routines of your target audience, which will help you uncover a list of services that readily fit into their lifestyle.

You can do this by asking the participants to walk you through a typical day. When you sit down to analyze the data, focus on separating the non-negotiables from the negotiables. Working hours are non-negotiable; so are certain family responsibilities such as childcare and caring for aging parents (although this latter example varies based on cultural norms). In contrast, whether to spend a Sunday afternoon going to a free career workshop or picking up extra work that is good to have but not essential is negotiable. Once you start to "see" the schedule of your target audience, you are getting closer to supporting them not only with what they need but also how they want it.

Tool #3: Use needs assessment to fight the myth of "a homogenous group" and maximize your SROI.

Did you know there are more in-group differences than between-group variations?

If your biggest concern is that you might miss the needs of some folks in your target group, you can use needs assessment to break down the needs of the bigger group into smaller sub-groups.

The most effective way to get that information is to ask your participants. For example, you can say something like this: "We're trying to better understand [demographic group] in the context of [focus of interview]. We are aware that no two individuals want the same thing in life or do things the same way. Could you describe someone in your community that has different aspirations?"

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