Assessing needs


  • Assessing needs means understanding the key problems that need to be addressed and where funding gaps exist.
  • Whether formal or informal a needs assessment should identify under-funded issues through a number of stages, suggested below.
  • Needs analysis can be quite a complicated process, and daunting to undertake alone.
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Assessing needs means understanding the key problems that need to be addressed and where funding gaps exist.  It can be tempting to fund high profile causes and organisations, but these are often already well served by other donors and/or statutory provision, and you may make a greater difference in under-funded areas.

A needs assessment should identify under-funded issues. Needs analyses take a variety of forms. An informal approach might involve reading some reports on the issue, talking to some experts and charities, and forming a view of what needs support. At the more formal end, for instance for a large strategic foundation wanting to concentrate millions of pounds of donations on a specific issue (such as combating malaria), a full research study might be necessary. However you go about it, you need to be confident that you are meeting a need and not duplicating provision.

Stages of needs assessment
When conducting a needs analysis, you should aim to begin by understanding the size and nature of the need: how big the issue is, how many people are affected, and to what extent they are affected. You may identify some groups who are particularly badly affected by an issue. It can be complicated to conduct this research from scratch, so look out for existing research by think tanks, large charities in the field, other funders and government agencies.

The second stage is to discover what the public and private sectors are doing in this area. This will involve understanding provision from central government, in addition to local authorities, public health bodies and schools. You may find that existing support covers only a proportion of those affected by an issue or only some of their needs, or that services are being affected by spending cuts.

Next you should look to understand what work charities are undertaking in the area. Find out what the charities are hoping to achieve, how they address the issues, and what interventions are most effective. It can be difficult to assess the impact of a charity, but look for information about the difference they make (i.e. changes in the lives of their beneficiaries), alongside detail of their activities (see charity impact evaluation). Finally investigate what other funders are doing in the area; it is important that you support an area where there is a real need for more funding.

Deciding how to address need
When deciding where to dedicate resources, it can be helpful to think about the trade-offs you need to make between addressing the need in different ways. Projects that work directly with individuals (such as providing wheelchairs to disabled children) tend to have a greater certainty of outcome, and changes can be observed relatively rapidly. However these projects tend to be high intensity and therefore reach a relatively small number of people. Investment in policy or campaigning work (for example a campaigning project to tackle obesity) will have a much less certain outcome and it will take longer to see any change but success is likely to impact a huge number of people. Donors deciding how to address the needs they have identified can think about where they would like to fund along these three spectrums—breadth of reach, certainty of outcome, and time required to demonstrate impact.

Much of the information needed can be found through desk research and through conversations with practitioners and experts. If you are already funding projects then it can be valuable to review any learning from your experience. Some donors decide up front to develop a ‘learning portfolio’ supporting charities that work at different points along the breadth, certainty and time ranges. This can be a short term arrangement as you assess your preferred method of tackling the need, or it can be part of a long term strategy to increase the impact of the funding by tackling the problem from many different levels.

Needs analysis can be quite a complicated process, and daunting to undertake alone. If you have a clear idea of where and how you want to fund, then the most important thing is to reassure yourself that your money goes towards a real need and doesn’t get lost in a well- funded area. If you’re less clear on how to make the most of your funding within a particular area, and want to undertake a more thorough assessment of needs, you may find it more practical to get some support from experts.