The Importance of Conducting Needs Assessments

August 2012 | Laurens G. Van Sluytman, PhD, MA, LCSW

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As elder members of LGBT communities achieve greater visibility in national discourse, the mission statements of many organizations strive to incorporate services to these communities. These mission statements define the population and indicate what is supposed to happen for whom. In essence they describe the conditions or attributes of the population they seek to serve and how they intend to achieve these goals. However description of a population that is not entirely visible requires engaging the population in defining itself and determining its members’ needs. Accordingly, organizations must conduct needs assessments in consultation with the members of the community and their allies.

The World Health Organization declares that needs assessments contribute to planning and delivering the most effective care to those in greatest need. Further they should be grounded in principles of equity and social justice and ensure that scarce resources are allocated where they can give maximum benefit. Additionally, they must be informed by community members beyond completion of surveys, through community based participatory research and action. Organizations must engage the community in a democratic process which increases members’ knowledge and ownership of activities, policies and procedures. These outcomes create an environment where consumers have better access to information while enhancing trust in the services and the organization’s legitimacy. 

Since 2010, GRIOT Circle, a community based organization providing services to LGBT older adults of color, has conducted an annual community needs assessment. The organization, members and community stakeholders (a stakeholder is anyone with an interest or concern, who can change or be changed or who is interested in either or both the success and failure of the organization and its membership) are guided by the knowledge that people of color LGBT members are often marginalized within the community and may not be included in the needs assessments of organizations tasked with providing services to elders. To counter such invisibility, GRIOT invites its member as well as community stakeholders to help identify and define the scope of community, planning, collecting and interpreting data, evaluating and implementing findings and determining outcomes for new programming. While conducting its needs assessment, GRIOT Circle encountered many obstacles. They included absence of those individuals whose level of impairment prevented them from meaningfully participating in decision making where physical presence was required. In other cases, stigma associated with sexual orientation and fears of being outed and ostracized meant that some members remain hidden and their voices silent.

Notwithstanding these limitations, the organization benefited from engaging community members in its needs assessment strategies. GRIOT found that achieving lasting and effective change requires the community’s cooperation and involvement in place of isolated organizational decision making. Instead, developing, analyzing, interpreting and implementing needs assessment and their findings offer opportunity, responsibility and increased levels of personal accomplishment to community members. Effective programming and policy development requires involving community members in making appropriate recommendations concerning implementation. These methods create a climate that supports client involvement in decision making. They also promote meaningful client participation and responsiveness by sharing decision making power and respectfully considering and acting on clients' preferences.

Laurens G. Van Sluytman, PhD, MA, LCSW is an Assistant Professor at Morgan State University, School of Social Work. His research objectives comprise efforts to identify the role that micro, messo and macro-level factors play in black men’s individual wellness, the lives of their families, communities and larger local and national processes toward developing and implementing effective policies  addressing poverty and disparities in health outcomes. He co-authored several papers and presented findings at several national conferences on addiction and aging. His community partners include GRIOT Circle, an intergenerational culturally diverse CBO serving the needs of elder LGBT POC and STAR Inc Baltimore.