Needs Assessments and Audits

About 8 years ago I worked for the national office of the Methodist Church in the UK.  I was responsible for £1 million per year of grants for Methodist Churches and one of the issues was encouraging applicants to plan their work and think critically about their plans.  We designed our grant application forms to encourage applicants to tell their story and show they could deliver their objectives.  Needs assessments like this are common in grant applications.

So in 2006 we published a CD-Rom (remember those?) called “Building Confidence”.  These days it would be on a website and we did consider that as an option but decided that at the time many member churches did not have access to broadband.

The CD-Rom included a document called “The Hard Questions Workbook”.  The idea was you would attempt to answer its questions after you had designed your project.  It aimed to encourage project managers to take a step back and look critically at their plans before they applied for a grant.  I would have preferred to publish it on cheap paper like the old children’s dot-to-dot books.  Then a small group could have sat around and scribbled their ideas on it.  We were very excited by it in the office but I don’t remember anyone ever claiming to have used it!

Needs Assessment Questionnaires

Earlier this week I heard a story from an experienced web consultant who had struggled getting his clients to complete questionnaires for needs assessments or audits.  The questions switched them off and he was losing friends as a result!  This conversation was in the context of a massive new questionnaire a group of us are working on to help organisations design their websites for conversion.  This, supported by a team of consultants, will be a powerful tool if we can persuade clients to use it!

I too have a needs assessment questionnaire and have found it switches off my clients.  By off I mean really totally and completely off.  I mean so far off that I have not been able to gather any helpful information about what the problem actually is.  It seems people do not like being asked about their organisations.  They do not like having to think carefully about what they are doing.  Whilst I have no doubt at all this accounts for why so many websites and real life projects are a bit rubbish, I am at a loss to explain why there is such adamant resistance.

I love going deep into organisations and don’t find deep analysis at all threatening.  Experienced consultants can charge thousands of pounds because there are plenty of big businesses who understand the value of it.

Reasons Third Sector Organisations Reject Needs Assessments


  • don’t trust their consultant and / or are suspicious of consultancy in general
  • have emotional investment in their organisation and fear uncovering its faults
  • find such questionnaires daunting and don’t have the time to do it justice (they are daunting)
  • can’t cope with large quantities of potentially contradictory information
  • don’t see the relevance to website design and think they can sling any old things together without reference to their organisation’s purpose
  • reject the idea a website is an ongoing investment of time and money
  • don’t understand what they’ve taken on and so react against it when they encounter it

These are all guesses.  Maybe some apply in some cases and maybe there are other reasons I have not picked up.  What’s to be done?  What we have is a product few people want and many organisations need.  I think there are three things needed to help organisations take up this approach.  We need to

  • understand why in-depth questions about organisations are such a big turn-off (preferably not by use of a questionnaire)
  • design more accessible approaches that are fun to do, perhaps in a collaborative way (my dot-to-dot book approach might have performed better than the pdf on a CD-Rom)
  • market the idea more effectively so that organisations can choose to take it on when they are ready for it

Have you encountered similar problems?  If so leave a comment.  Thanks!

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

Leave a Reply 2 comments

Mark Woodhead - October 13, 2014 Reply

I have encountered some of these problems – albeit not in the context of website design. I suspect that there is some truth in most or all of the possible reasons in your list (don’t trust the consultant, etc). One possible reason, that I have thought about quite a bit, is that a ‘needs assessment’, by its very nature, will usually focus on needs, deficits, shortcomings – and some organisations won’t want to do this at least unless there is also a balancing emphasis on the organisation’s strengths. . So maybe, for some organisations at least, an assessment or audit that encourages an appreciation and even perhaps celebration of strengths and successes alongside the unearthing of needs, problems and shortcomings will work better. An organisation might find this approach less upsetting or humiliating – and it may be that some of the strengths will themselves provide starting points for further development.

Chris - October 14, 2014 Reply

Yes Mark, I think the name “needs assessment ” is somewhat misleading. Websites should focus on strengths and successes and indeed an assessment for a website would focus on those aspects. The negatives need only be expressed in the purpose of the site as presumably the point of it is to meet some need. I called my approach an assessment to begin with and a client suggested the addition of “needs” would help clients understand what it is. Your comment leads me to question whether I have found the right name for it. Of course the name is not the only aspect of marketing the idea that needs attention but it is important because it is likely to be the first thing potential clients see.

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