Assess Your Community and Connect Its ResourcesAssess Your Community and Connect Its Resources

Conduct a Community Assessment

Three women discuss a project and look up information on a laptop computer.Communities face many competing priorities. A community assessment can give you a clear picture of what’s going on in your community. It can help members of your community agree on why it’s important to focus on youth and how to best address problems. A well-documented assessment also can be used to persuade elected officials, funders, and other key groups to support your work.

A comprehensive community assessment will help you identify:

  • The problems you would like to address in your community;
  • Where those problems occur;
  • Which youth and families are most affected by those problems; and
  • What resources and strengths your community has to address those problems.

A community assessment also will provide a snapshot of current conditions from which you can later measure the success of your efforts. It will help you gain support and credibility for your efforts.

How Do You Conduct a Community Assessment?

While the idea of conducting a community assessment may seem like a lot of work, it actually follows a straightforward process. This guide will walk you through that process and provide you with tools to make things a bit easier.

Remember, this is not something you should do alone. Building a community partnership comes first. Bring together people who have an interest in youth, will provide ongoing leadership, and will be champions for this effort. These people may include your elected officials, faith and community leaders, local business owners, schools, law enforcement officials, volunteer organizations, service agencies, media representatives, and, most importantly, families and youth themselves. Take advantage of existing community resources and bring together people with different views, experiences, and skills. Tribes can read additional suggestions relating to community assessment in tribal areas here.

Also, be aware that people are most successful in changing their lives only when they are truly ready to change. The same is true for communities. Take some time to determine whether your community is ready to take action on behalf of its young people. As you build your partnership and conduct an assessment, keep an eye on the feedback you receive. There are many factors to determine readiness, such as the community’s support, the scope and size of the problem, and the resources you have to draw on. As a result of your assessment, you may find that your community is ready to move ahead, or you may identify areas to work on before you can launch your initiative for youth.

Now, let’s get started.

Step 1: Establish the What, Where, and Who

Once you have formed a community partnership, establish specific goals for your work. While we may wish to address every issue in every neighborhood, you will be most successful if you narrow your focus. To make sure all your partners are pulling in the same direction, spend some time talking about the “what, where, and who” of your project.

A male teacher and a high-school-age boy and girl in a classroom smile at the camera.As part of this step, don’t forget to talk to youth. What are their concerns? Where do they think you should concentrate your efforts? Once you have come to some consensus, you will have a better idea of what data you need to collect.

This process doesn’t always go as planned. You may start out thinking you want to do something in one area, but as you learn more, you may realize the root of the problem lies elsewhere. That’s why it is important to collect data up front and assess where and how you can be the most productive. Otherwise, you may end up wasting precious resources on something that isn’t really the problem you thought it was or that some other group is already addressing.

So, where do you start? Often the toughest question is what to focus on. Even though it may have been a specific event that brought you together, many concerns and issues are interconnected. Violence and substance abuse, for example, can go hand in hand. It can be very hard to separate some issues, but your partnership will need to narrow its focus.

It is helpful to do some reading about youth, family, and community issues. Spend some time learning about youth risk and protective factors. These factors either increase young people’s risk for, or protect them from, problems such as abusing drugs or engaging in delinquent behavior. Later you will be selecting programs that have been shown to be effective in addressing specific factors.

It can be hard to measure the incidence of certain risk factors. For example, if you say you are concerned about the risk factor of family violence, you may actually need to collect data on the number of protective orders written in your community. In research terms, we call these more concrete measures “indicators.” Your coalition will want to identify indicators and potential data sources to measure those indicators. This activity will enable you to identify which risk or protective factors in your community may be influencing youth behavior. Below you will find some examples of common indicators that will assist you in answering the what, where, and who you will want to plan strategies around. In the discussion of Step 2 of the community assessment process you will find guidance as to where you may look for specific data to measure indicators.

Which indicators are of most concern to your partnership?

  • Adolescent substance abuse
  • Child abuse and neglect
  • Gang activity
  • Juvenile arrest/adjudication
  • Youth violence
  • Truancy
  • Placement of children and youth in foster care facilities
  • Juvenile weapons/gun violation arrests
  • Underage drinking
  • Graduation rates
  • Unemployment rate

Where would you like to concentrate your efforts?

  • City or town block
  • Neighborhood
  • City or town
  • County

Who? Is there a specific population you would like to focus on?

  • Youth ages 10-19
  • Low-income families
  • Single-parent families
  • Families with children
  • Families with different education levels
  • Families with varying employment statuses

Step 2: Learn More About the What, Where, and Who

After you have established specific goals for your work, you’ll need to gather as much information on the issue or population you’re addressing as you can.

The first thing to do is use the online mapping tool.

The online mapping tool will provide census data about your community, help you see where the people you would most like to serve live in your community, and show you what Federal resources are already available.

Unfortunately, online mapping tool can’t provide you all the information you will need about your community. Some of that will need to come from your own research. Form a small working group to take on this job. Involve people who have expertise and experience in data collection—perhaps someone from a college or university in your community or from a local service agency.

Remember that others in your community may have already done some data collection. Look around and see what results of surveys, focus groups, community forums, or other data are already available to you. How has the information been summarized and made available to the public? What does the information tell you about local problems, issues, and resources? Looking at this material may also help you assess how ready your community is to take the next step.

A teenage boy is perched on a corral fence.If you have to start from scratch, it is often easiest to begin by gathering data from available sources, such as public records from your local health department, school district, chamber of commerce, and police department. If you click on the risk and protective factors list in the background section, it will give you indicators for each risk factor, followed by great examples of where you might find data on these items. You can also get more information on additional data sources from the Table of Data Sources.

You may decide that you want to collect new data through surveys, focus groups, and interviews. Because no single data source can provide a complete picture, try to use more than one. Each report or piece of information you review can provide a different perspective. By drawing from multiple sources, you can look for areas of overlap and improve the accuracy of your assessment.

Step 3: Identify Resources in Your Community

While you may have come to this tool because your community is facing some big challenges, you shouldn’t forget that there are many resources in your community that already exist to help you address these challenges. First, if you go back to MAPIT, you will find that you can map the federal funds that are already coming to your designated community.

As a second step, you should develop a Community Resource Inventory.

A Community Resource Inventory will help you identify and keep track of:

  • The services and programs that exist in your community (faith-based services, voluntary organizations/programs, etc.);
  • The financial resources your community has (Federal and State grant funding, foundation or for-profit funding, nonprofit funds, donations, etc.);
  • The material resources your community has (e.g., technological resources, equipment, office space and supplies);
  • The human resources your community has (e.g., staff, volunteers, champions); and
  • The training and technical assistance that is needed and available and how to access these resources.

Look for community organizations and individuals who work on the problems you are interested in addressing. As you become aware of these resources, make every effort to include these groups in your planning process. It is often a good idea to involve youth. They often have the inside track on the organizations and people who are most supportive of their needs and concerns. In some communities, youth have undertaken a process called youth mapping, where they have developed their own maps of resources.

Step 4: Analyze and Learn From the Data You’ve Collected

Spend some time analyzing the data so that you know how to proceed. It may be helpful to partner with the local school district, hospital, college, university, or community planning agency to assist with this data analysis. These institutions often have trained staff who can analyze the information you have collected.

A teenage boy and girl review an assignment while sitting on the floor of a school hallway.When you analyze the data, decide which issues need to be addressed together and which problems might have different causes or lie beyond your current reach. When completed, your analysis will provide a current view of the issues (indicators) you would like to address in your community.

Next, determine if the resources in your community are adequate to address the problems identified. Be aware that just because resources exist, they may not be adequate to achieve the outcomes you want. Go to the Community Resource Inventory and identify your local resources by zip code or by risk factor. Take a look at your list of Federal resources on the online mapping tool. Are these the kinds of resources you need to address the issues you are facing?

Here are a few questions to help you organize your analysis:

  • What youth/community problems can be identified based on the data?
  • What are the strengths of the community in addressing these problems?
  • What geographic areas are most affected by these problems?
  • How did the data compare with your initial perception of the problems?
  • How did the data change your understanding of these problems?
  • What are the underlying factors that contribute to these problems (what risk factors are most prominent)?
  • What are the underlying factors that can help solve these problems (what protective factors are most available to help)?
  • What additional data do you need to better understand the scope of these problems?

Step 5. Develop a Plan of Action

After you have analyzed the data, develop a plan of action based on what you learned. This plan should identify the issues you want to address, the strategies you will use to tackle those problems, the coalition partners who can help in implementing the chosen strategies, and the outcomes you intend to achieve. Here are some questions to help guide your plan of action:

  • What target population do you want to serve?
  • Which indicators are you trying to change?
  • Which organizations and programs are already in place serving that need or population?
  • How will your new programs fit with what is already there?
  • What do you need to implement those programs (e.g., funding, training, and technical assistance)?
  • Who can provide that support?
  • How can you determine the success of your plan?

In developing your plan, you can use the Program Tool. You can use the data you’ve collected on indicators or the risk and protective factors you know concern you the most to help you select an appropriate program.

It is a good idea to go back to your Community Resource Inventory to answer questions about how a newly selected program will fit with what is already there.

Step 6: Share What You’ve Learned

Planning, implementing, and sustaining a new community initiative requires the participation and support of the whole community. You have the best chance of success if you share what you’ve learned through your assessment with the greater community. The President and Mrs. Bush firmly believe that every American has an opportunity to help children and youth to develop in healthy ways, avoid trouble, and lead successful lives. You may need to help your community members better understand the issues and see how they can be part of the solution.

Create a report of your assessment’s findings and recommendations and share it with the community by reaching out to local media, holding community forums, or advising elected officials and community leaders. Invite participation, input, or feedback, as appropriate.

Before developing your report, ask your partners:

  • What information should be included in the report?
  • What will be the best format for the report?
  • Who should lead the writing?
  • How do we want to disseminate the information?
  • Should we hold public forums? Who will present at them and which information should be presented?
  • Who is the audience for the dissemination?
  • Who from the larger community needs to be involved in the dissemination (e.g., parents, community leaders)?

Here is one possible outline for your community assessment report:

  1. Introduction: State why you performed an assessment. Tell what you set out to do and how you went about doing it. Summarize the information that you have to share.
  2. Key Findings: Present the major findings from your assessment and the central problems that emerged.
  3. Additional Factors: Present the associated risks that were identified. Speak about the community perceptions that will need to be considered in addressing these problems.
  4. Strengths and Resources: Map out the resources that are available in the community to address these issues.
  5. Action Plan: Lay out your plan of action. The plan should include, as specifically and comprehensively as possible, the strategies you will implement to address the needs you uncovered.
  6. Measures of Success: Propose the ways you will determine the success of the implementation of your plan.
  7. Challenges: Identify the challenges to be addressed in order for this effort to be a success.
  8. Conclusions: Present your conclusions, and invite your audience to get involved.