How to do a needs assessment

What is a needs assessment?

A needs assessment is designed to facilitate the development of a working document that outlines the current functioning of an organization. Such a document can take many forms, but is often referred to as a SWOT Analysis (SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats). The SWOT Analysis process will enable you to bear witness to the current state of the organization in which you are working.

Steps in the needs assessment process

1. Choosing an aspect of your organization. If your organization is large, such as Colorado College, you may want to focus on some smaller, pragmatically-linked subset of its functioning (e.g. Queer Life at Colorado College).

2. Making invitations. Select an individual or individuals connected to the organization who you feel will be willing and able to tell you a lot about the current state of the organization. This could be a supervisor, but could also be employees, volunteers, or community members who engage with the organization. Invite people to participate in brief one-to-one conversations with you, and let them know you would like to conduct a needs assessment of the organization, and that you will be sharing this information with the organization after the process is complete. To contextualize what you learn in these conversations, you may also want to see if you can peruse some archival information to get a clearer sense of the organization's current state.

3. Structuring your information gathering. A SWOT analysis assesses an organization's current Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Strengths are those physical, human, financial, environmental, programmatic and conceptual things that make an organization great. Weaknesses, in contrast, are those areas in which an organization can grow. Opportunities are possibilities for growth, and may include grant opportunities, new partnerships, new leadership, etc. Threats are those things that impede or threaten to impede an organization's ability to carry out its mission. These can include the potential loss of office space, a grant expiring, rumors of Congressional budget cuts, loss of 501c3 status, etc.

4. Interviewing. Every conversation should be allowed to flow and be tailored to the specifics of your site. Note that in such matters many voices are always better than one, as one voice alone can give a skewed picture. It is ideal to engage in conversations with people at varying levels of power within an organization, and to be attuned to the ways in which power and privilege constrain what will and won't get said in these conversations. By the same token, you may often need to bring the conversation back to the question, or encourage a person to consider other issues (e.g. if they have been talking about human strengths, encourage them to also talk about their physical resources, etc.).

5. Checking your biases. As you engage in conversations and as you aggregate the results of these conversations, take several moments throughout notice, name, and if possible, interrupt your biases. Go ahead and claim, either just to yourself or in the actual paper, what you want this story to be about, and how that might line up or not line up with the "raw data." Make sure to minimize the extent to which your biases influence who you invite to a conversation, and what you ask, and what you end up writing down. Work towards a "situated objectivity." Attempt not to ask leading questions; be as open-ended as possible. Tell others (and yourself) that you don't have a specific agenda other than gaining an understanding of the strengths and needs of the organization.

6. Writing the SWOT analysis. A SWOT analysis typically first provides a general introduction that provides background about the organization, its mission, and its programs. The body of the analysis provides summary statements of the organization's Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, followed by the specifics of each. Finally, SWOT analysis often provide should provide a discussion section that provides an overarching summary of your observations and proposes future directions for the organization.

With regard to how to structure a SWOT analysis, you could choose to put all the strengths together, followed by all the weaknesses, etc. or you can arrange things topically (e.g. a SWOT about physical space, followed by a SWOT about human resources, etc.). In other words, your analysis could look like SSSSSSWWWWWWOOOOOTTTTT or like Human SWOT Financial SWOT Physical SWOT Program SWOT, or like something else entirely. As this is a tool for social action, you should feel empowered to experiment with the organizational structures that most lend themselves to conveying the story you are trying to tell. Utilizing diagrams, photographs, artifacts, etc, can also be tremendously useful.

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