Melissa Cater, PhD
The central decision for [all organizations] is, What is the best way to portion out the available resources, including time, money, and organizational efforts to meet all the demands-the needs-that compete for them?
Such decisions may be based on intuition, political pressures, past practices, or personal preferences, and they may be made by boards or managers. But the most effective way to decide such issues is to make needs assessment the first stage in planning. (Witkin, 1984, xi)
Needs assessment is the very foundation of Extension program planning. A need is “something that is essential or desired to maintain well-being” . . . “or something that is necessary to relieve a state of deficiency or deprivation” (Pawlak & Vinter, 2004, p. 73). Today we will focus on three descriptors that help us better understand the needs of our clientele.
A common method of describing a need is by taking a raw count of the number of people experiencing the problem. This count is commonly referred to as the magnitude of the need (Pawlak & Vinter, 2004). Figure 1 illustrates that 3 of every 10 individuals (or 30%) are experiencing the problem or have this need.
Figure 1. An illustration of the magnitude of a need.
While the magnitude is often very helpful in determining whether or not it is useful to address a need, it may not have the granularity needed to determine the target audience of a program. The distribution of a need is illustrated using demographic categories like gender, race, age, education, and other characteristics (Pawlak & Vinter, 2004). In Figure 2, the greatest need is among people in the 41-60 year old age range. Information like this provides both Extension faculty and advisory leadership councils with much needed evidence when making program decisions.
Figure 2. An illustration of the distribution of a need within groups ages 0-18, 19-40, and 41-60.
Another technique for describing needs is by considering the scope of the problem. Scope focuses in more closely on the number of cases of a given condition in a specific population and area during a specific time period (Pawlak & Vinter, 2004). Scope examines the current state of a problem by looking at both old and new cases. Prevalence is the term used for the number of existing cases while incidence refers to new cases. In the illustration below (see Figure 3), the need is measured from a gender perspective within Clover Parish. In boys, the prevalence of the need is 3 in 10 (30%) and the incidence is 4 in 10 (40%). Conversely, in girls both the prevalence and incidence are 2 in 10 (20%). It is easy to see that the greatest need, as measured by both prevalence and incidence, is for programming targeted at boys.
Figure 3. An illustration of the scope of a need in Clover Parish.
Program planning is never an easy task, yet having access to data which describes the magnitude, distribution and scope of a need provides program decision-makers with tools to make the process easier. For more information on how to collect this type of data for your program, contact any member of the Organizational Development and Evaluation team.
Pawlak, E. & Vinter, R. (2004). Designing and planning programs for nonprofit and government organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Witkin, B. R. (1984). Assessing needs in educational and social programs: Using information to make decisions, set priorities, and allocate resources. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.