Conducting Issues and Needs Assessments


On an ongoing basis, Extension faculty identify educational programs relevant to community members. As a new faculty member you will devote a fair amount of time in the first six months determining the educational needs within the scope of your job description and the geographical area you are serving.

What it is

  • Issues and needs assessments involve the systematic use of tools, methods and available data to analyze and document the needs in a population, to arrange the needs in priority order and to select the needs to be addressed.
  • Issues and needs assessments are a continuous analysis of community issues and opportunities to describe and understand the educational needs of the community and its members.


  • Helps you learn more about the community
  • Identifies gaps between current and desired outcomes
  • Facilitates decision making about allocating resources such as time, money, energy and staff to achieve the maximum impact
  • Builds interest in UMaine Cooperative Extension programs
  • Helps you learn more about the specific needs and aspirations of people in a community
  • Provides data to help you plan, implement and evaluate programs
  • Identifies possibilities to develop new programs or expand existing ones
  • Helps you set program priorities
  • Creates opportunities for collaboration

Key questions that needs assessments address include:*

  • What must be changed or improved?
  • What is the real cause of the problem or what issue needs to be addressed?
  • Who will be affected by the problem or is involved in the issue?
  • What role can education play in solving the problem or impacting the issue?
  • Who supports this program?
  • What expertise and/or resources exist to address the problem or need?
  • Is this need already adequately addressed by others in the community? What other individuals, agencies, or organizations can and will contribute?

*Seevers, Graham, Gamon & Conklin (1997 p. 99)

Questions to ask before you design the issues and needs assessment process

  • What do I want or need to know about?
  • How will I use the assessment information?
  • Where can I find the data to answer what I want or need to know?
  • Who is my target audience?
  • What is the preferred way to contact them?
  • How can I obtain the data?
  • What useful data sources already exist at the local, state and federal level?
  • Who else in the community could be involved in the process?
  • Who are the other potential users of the information?


Focus groups: Involves a planned, focused discussion with a small group of people (7 to 10) facilitated by you or a colleague. The major function of a focus group is to collect opinions, beliefs and attitudes as well as checking out assumptions about specific issues that relate to what you want or need to know about.

Observation: Involves identifying an issue or need you want to know more about and strategically observing in environments that could provide relevant data. Data from observations provide a way to check what other data might be showing.

Interviews: Selecting a small number of key individuals or community members and interviewing them about their perception of community issues and needs. A structured interview with focused questions provides better results.

Tests: Using the end of program evaluation results to determine educational needs in a program area. Adding a question like “What other programs are you interested in?” at the end of a program evaluation form also provides you with data about a new program or the expansion of an existing program.


Surveys and Questionnaires: Involves selecting a sample of community members and surveying these individuals by mail, web-site, e-mail, and telephone or in person about issues or aspirations. If the questions are designed well, the data is relatively reliable and valid.

Phone call records, information requests, program requests: Examining patterns that emerge from requests that come into your office. The information may infer present or future educational needs.


Group assessments: Involves the collection of data from a specific group such as your professional peers, program teams, local and statewide advisory groups. It is relatively easy to identify and gain access to existing groups. You gather a lot of data in a short amount of time.

Research results: Reading relevant published or unpublished literature — books, journals, research reports, monographs and technical publications. These provide a level of credibility and a broader understanding of an issue.

Contact with under-served and under-represented groups: Uses any of the tools, methods and sources to gather data about your community’s under-served and under-represented groups. It provides a thorough understanding of the issue and how best to design educational programs that meets their needs.

Review of records and reports: Involves compiling socio-demographic data from existing public records available from local, state and federal agencies such as census data. The data is readily available and you can make inferences about need based on the statistics.

Analyses of existing programs: Involves compiling a resource inventory that provides you with what is already being offered in the community. It also helps you to identify potential collaborators. This may be conducted through telephone contact, agency surveys or review of existing community resource directories.

Intuition: Listening and trusting the unsolicited thoughts and insights that pop up in your awareness.


The issues and needs assessment is a critical component of the program development process. It provides information for you to be impactful about meeting the educational needs of community members.

It also sets you up for completing a situational analysis which can lead to strong research and grant proposals. A list of situational analysis components is provided by Forest and Baker (1994, p. 88):

  • Describes the current condition
  • Identifies need, problem, opportunity or emerging issue
  • Includes support data and documentation of need
  • Includes indicators of severity/scope of need
  • Includes benchmark data against which later impact measurements can be compared
  • Establishes clear reasons and justifications for programs
  • Describers primary audiences(s), numbers, and geographic locations
  • Indicates a gap between “what is” and “what could be”
  • Indicates needed research


Forest, L., and Baker, H. 1994. The program planning process. In Extension Handbook, Blackburn, D., ed. Toronto, Canada: Thompson Educational Publishing.

Seevers, B., Graham, D. Gamon, J., & Conklin, N. (1997). Education through Cooperative Extension. Albany, New York: Delmar Publishers.