Traditionally, the first stage of developing a new service initiative has involved a “Needs Assessment”. However, when a number of organizations are committed to co-creating a community hub for a shared cause, focusing only on “needs” may encourage narrow thinking. In contrast, a “Community Assessment” takes us beyond needs, to build a full, rich picture of all of the relevant parts of our communities.
Why It’s Important
Knowing our Communities
What are Community Assessments?
Exploring the questions above, and others, form part of the assessment process. Community assessments help to build on what you know and learn what you don’t. They involve both gathering and analyzing existing information (data, reports etc.) and connecting directly with people and organizations to involve them in the process. An assessment builds connections among all the people and organizations cooperating to make a hub as relevant and effective as possible. Together, they may change what you think the hub needs to do – and they will definitely make the hub more effective.
What Will a Community Assessment Accomplish?
A community assessment will:
- Provide a full picture of our community as it is
This will allow you to demonstrate with solid evidence and confidence why you are designing the hub the way you are and which resources are required to proceed. It will confirm that plans have been developed thoroughly and include all the relevant information and people. As changes will likely occur over time, it is important to be prepared to track and update plans as needed.
- Create important connections with the people that the hub is there for
Reaching out and involving people in the planning of the hub creates pathways to the heart of the community. It makes connections with the groups and people that make up any community – how their lives really work; what they want, what gets in the way of their health and pathways to success. It teaches about their skills and talents, how they support each other (or don’t), which services they use, or what prevents them. Engaging people early on will shape programs and service priorities and even the physical design of the space; it will build champions/ambassadors to bring people through the doors and take you out to the people. This kind of engagement increases the probability that what the hub offers, and how it offers it, will be meaningful, valued and used.
- Map the connections among groups and organizations in the community
Hubs are about “collective impact”. Figuring out how to work together to improve conditions and develop opportunities for our communities requires relationship-building with all relevant agencies, as well as formal and informal networks. Knowing how effectively (or not) they connect with each other will help with decisions about who needs to be part of the hub – either physically located there or linked for planning and referral and collective action.
- Show where there are service gaps
Mapping relationships can suggest how agencies and services can connect and work together more effectively, and point to partnerships to make referrals easier for everyone to plan together, to share intake, resources etc. It can reveal where people are isolated, left out or ‘slipping through the cracks’.
- Show different ways of delivering services
It is important to be prepared to learn from the people using the hub about what will make it work for them, i.e. hours of operation; drop-in versus appointment systems; ease of referral, religious or cultural factors; and personal safety issues – for example, an individual (for various reasons) may not want to be seen entering a hub, so you may need to find other places that feel (and are) safe for some people or groups.
- Show you where your hub needs to be
A community assessment will help you decide whether a specific location for community partners works for everyone. For instance, satellite locations may help achieve your shared goals. Perhaps innovative approaches are required, such as mobile services out of a central location, or even a virtual hub with technology to help people access help and support.
- Identify your community’s potential
A community assessment allows you to identify, acknowledge and build on existing strengths and resources within your community, for instance the skills people have, the ways in which they support each other, and sources of leadership (or potential leadership). It can also point out barriers that prevent people from using their skills and talents. An assessment helps build a full picture of what is already working well –– an approach, an agency, or an informal pathway the hub can support and build on.
What You Need to Know:
To determine what you need to know, keep in mind these three questions:
- What do you want to know?
- Why do you want to know it?
- How will you use what you learn?
As has been mentioned, community assessment is much broader than simply finding out the extent of a given problem. Research and engagement will ensure the hub improves the health and quality of life for the people using it. Also consider:
- All of the information available, or that you can gather, on the issues, problems and/or barriers that you want to change or improve.
- Which services/approaches currently exist for your population, i.e. formal agencies, community groups and networks, local leaders, faith communities etc.
- How various services and supports are (or are not) connected; what might improve their ability to connect and work together.
- How the various factors that impact peoples’ lives influence your approach – people’s families, friends and networks; their housing, health, income and food security; their sense of safety and belonging, inclusion and exclusion; their access (or lack) to services; their culture and why they make the choices that they do, what they want and their ideas about how to achieve it.
All of the above strands combine to help shape the plan – a response tailored to your particular demographic. Every hub has its own unique path and context. There is no “one formula” that will match every situation.
It is Important to discuss and be clear about how you will respond to what you learn. This will depend on your vision and the resources that you have. A hub that is focused on community development – on doing what is needed to help build a strong healthy neighbourhood or geographic area, must be prepared to work on any issue that is consistent with your vision and identified by your communities.
If you are focused on coordinating or integrating a specific service area, you may have set very different limits on what your hub will offer. This will be important in defining what you want to learn and how you communicate and engage with people.
When you are clear about the scope of what you want to explore and how you will respond to what you learn, you can begin to collect and analyze the data needed to move forward with your process. For example, what work has already been done to understand your community and assess effective responses? Have you looked into:
- Existing sources of information about the population – the hub website mapping tool, local health data, your local social planning organization, Statistics Canada
- Existing reports produced by trusted organizations – Needs Assessments, asset maps, municipal planning studies etc.
- Information on the existing range of agencies, institutions, formal and informal networks
Additional questions might include:
- Are any service inventories available?
- How recent is the data; do trends and patterns over time indicate how a population and the environment is going to change?
- How can you present the data in a visual way that will be meaningful to people?
- What are the ways you are going to use to make sure that all the people who will be connected with the hub are involved?
Also worth considering:
- It is important to use multiple ways of gathering information. A crossing guard, a building superintendent, a faith leader, or school staff may have the most current and useful information about who is in your community, what has recently changed and the “real talk” about what is going on.
- Asking questions will lead to new questions – allow time to collect more information and share, test and explore what you learn with, and from, community members.
- Remember that engagement takes time. It is not about simply gathering information but is about building relationships. It is a continuous process. “Engaging a community is not an activity that leaders can check off on a list. It’s a continuous process that aims to generate the support necessary for long-term change.” (Community Engagement Matters (Now More Than Ever)
- Governance: the more effective you are at involving people in the Community Assessment and in turning the vision for the hub into reality, the more opportunities there are to involve people in the governance of the hub. The assessment stage is a time to be thinking and talking about how the hub will be governed – how will decisions get made? How will people be given a chance to be involved?
- Because communities constantly change, it is necessary to view community assessment as a continuous process – ideally built into the ongoing governance and operations of the hub. Collecting up-to-date information as it is released, or holding meetings of front-line staff and volunteers every three months to discuss what has changed, how to learn more, or how the hub can better respond, are all helpful.
- Before finalizing your understanding of what the assessment process has taught you, test your analysis with various stakeholders – community members, partners, government, funders. Ask: Does this reflect what you said? Are there things missing? Are there strategies and approaches that you haven’t thought about?
- Always ask who is missing and how to connect with them. Be sure to include leaders but also look for opportunities to go deeper into community. Large community meetings work for some people but not for others. Why? Because some people may not feel safe in an open meeting; they may not be able to leave their homes; some individuals may be excluded for cultural or religious reasons. Consider these ways of reaching people:
- Attending existing programs, community group meetings or faith communities;
- Asking a member of a particular group (a youth, elder or a trusted worker, for example) to talk with people individually, or bring together a group that they feel confident will be willing to meet and talk openly
- Hire community animators – members from a community who can reach out to their networks and explore issues and ideas with them.
What To Watch Out For
The following points are important to think about while planning and moving forward with your community assessment and hub journey. They are all manageable and will help to make the process a success!
- Design a process that you have the resources to manage (people, experience, financial resources).
You may need to apply for additional funds, share costs between hub partners, or you may need to bring in an experienced facilitator to support the process.
- Information goes stale – check how recently your data was collected.
For example, the information may have been from the last census. It can take up to two years or more after the census for all the results to be released. Communities can change slowly but they can also change suddenly – a factory closes and the unemployment rate skyrockets; a new drug hits the streets; there is a sudden influx of refugees. Information about these changes and about the impact on the people involved may not be readily available.
- Collaboration has many advantages, but be aware of organizations that are cautious about change and be prepared to encourage open discussion and problem-solving.
They may feel a sense of threat to their funding, to their way of doing things if they become partners in a hub. This is particularly difficult when there are two or more organizations that offer similar programs and services, or when there is one large lead agency. Be diplomatic!
- As part of an ongoing commitment to community responsiveness, be prepared to respond to what people say about what is important to them.
People may have different priorities than your initial ideas of what the hub should offer. You may be asking about health services or youth programs, and they may be more concerned about community safety, or a landlord or lack of jobs. Be prepared to offer support to deal with the issues or ideas that people have, even if they fall outside your area of focus, experience or resources.