The information to be collected will be influenced by the assessment's intended purpose and how the community has been defined. The community assessment should include collection of information about the community's strengths as well as its needs.
Determining the important areas to study can be a difficult task. The planning group will not be able to assess everything and, of the areas which are assessed, they cannot be studied equally (Northern Development Council, 1982). Choices will have to be made. This section will help identify the information which needs to be collected:
The information to be collected will be influenced by the assessment's intended purpose and how the community has been defined. In conducting a community assessment, information about the community's strengths and assets as well as its needs should be collected. Also, some of the information collected should serve as baseline data which over time will assist in tracking community conditions. Generally, the literature suggests that there are three kinds of information that should be collected:
- statistical data including socio-demographic information and service utilization statistics;
- perspectives of residents, consumers and other community stakeholders; and,
- community resources and assets, both informal and formal.
Ideally, information gathering should be as comprehensive as possible with all three types of information being collected. However, limited time and resources will place constraints on what and how information can be realistically gathered (Samuels et al., 1995). Considering these factors will help the planning group make good decisions about information collection.
Collecting statistical data typically relies on information previously compiled by another organization. This type of data is referred to as secondary data and is far less costly to gather than primary data which is gathered first-hand (see About Methodologies for more information about secondary data). In deciding what statistical information to collect, there are several factors to consider (Samuels et al., 1995).
- As much as possible, the information should encompass a variety of dimensions such as household demographics, ethno-cultural diversity, education, economy, health, crime and service utilization in order to create a general picture of the community. The data should include measures that are broad indicators of social well being rather than focussing strictly on deficits or indicators of ill being.
- The information should be collected regularly, annually if possible, and in a format that enables a comparison from one period to the next.
- The quality of the data, its limitations and potential uses should be examined.
- The data collected should be considered as broad indicators which will assist in charting progress regarding community conditions. They should not be used directly to assess outcomes of particular services. Indicators are influenced by many factors rather than one particular intervention.
Worksheet 4 provides a checklist of statistical information the planning group may wish to collect. The checklist is not exhaustive but will serve as a guide to get the group thinking about the kinds of statistical data to gather as part of the community assessment. Depending upon how the community is defined, data which is specific to it may not always be available. The planning group will have to investigate what statistical information is available at the community level and where it can be found. Organizations and agencies which have the information will need to be contacted to secure their cooperation. Members of the planning group may have contacts in these organizations which could be helpful in gaining access to the information.
To analyze statistical information, the data needs to be compared to normative and relative standards. A normative standard is one which "has been previously established by authority tradition, or general consensus (Samuels et al., 1995)." An example of a normative standard is Statistics Canada's Low Income Cutoffs, income levels specified by year, household size and community size, under which households are considered to be living in "straitened circumstances." As many indicators don't have normative standards against which they can be compared, relative standards are often used. A relative standard "allows comparison of an indicator in the same community from one time period to another or allows comparison of the same indicator in two communities (Samuels et al., 1995)." Using normative and relative standards, statistical data should be analyzed for indications of the community's strengths, weaknesses and any developing trends.
Getting Perspectives from Community Members
A number of different methods can be used to get perspectives from community members, including surveys, key information interviews, focus groups and community forums.
Statistical data provides objective information about a community, its members and services. Another important component of an assessment process is the collection of subjective information about the community based on the perspectives of its members. A number of different methods can be used to gather this information and these include surveys, key informant interviews, focus groups and community forums. Worksheet 5 will help guide the process for planning and organizing the collection of community perspectives using these techniques. Each method, its advantages and disadvantages, is discussed in detail in About Methodologies. This section discusses the more general elements of successfully gathering qualitative information.
Limits on time, money and human resources will affect the strategies chosen to gather the perspectives of community members. Utilize any existing focus group, survey and key informant information gathered as part of other processes so efforts are not duplicated. In collecting new information from community members, a combination of approaches will be most effective in facilitating the collection of information from a broad range of people (Samuels et al., 1995).
It is important to be creative in getting people to participate in the information gathering process because those community members who are the most difficult to reach may provide some of the most insightful perspectives. Consider the barriers that exclude people from participating and try to address them. Offer child care, transportation, food and prizes to get people involved. Take advantage of community events, existing groups and meetings. When appropriate, use an outreach approach by meeting with people in places that are familiar, comfortable and commonly used by them such as coffee shops, laundromats, grocery stores, schools, child care and recreation facilities (Bruner et al., 1993). Being forthright with community members is also an important part of getting people involved (Samuels et al., 1995). Early in the process inform them about who is gathering the information, why it is being gathered and how it will be used. Use your sector map as a tool to ensure that you seek to engage broadly representative input from the community (see Worksheet 2).
To gather perspectives effectively, a list of questions that will be asked of all participants should be developed by the planning group.
There are several key tips for developing questions (Samuels et al., 1995).
- Ask short, simple specific questions. The quality of the answers will be higher.
- Questions used in different information gathering strategies such as surveys, key informant interviews and focus groups should be consistent with one another to make comparison possible.
- Questions should be unbiased. In other words, questions should be worded in a manner which does not encourage a specific answer.
- Only collect information that will be used and do not collect personal information or information that will identify people.
Information from community members will provide insights about the community that may not have become apparent from the statistical data. Having collected this "soft" data from community members, the planning group should be able to develop a list of community interests and issues (Samuels et al., 1995).
The analysis of community perspectives will be dependent on the information gathering strategy and, in some cases, may require some technical expertise. Generally, in analyzing and synthesizing the perspectives of community members, it is important to identify areas where there is strong agreement and common themes. Also, it is important to ensure that information which doesn't agree with original conceptions of the community is not ignored. In these cases, further investigation may be necessary.
Community Resources and Assets
This component of the community assessment is aimed at identifying the strengths of the community by gathering information regarding what resources exist in the community. It should not only include a review of formal service providers but also community organizations, associations and funding sources. Typically, the first step in this resource assessment is to compile a list of all the formal and informal supports within the community.
The formal supports include public institutions such as schools, park, recreation facilities, health care facilities, police as well as non-profit agencies. The informal supports, which are also critical to understanding the community, include local associations and organizations (Samuels et al., 1995).
Your sector map may assist you in the process of compiling a list of resources (see Worksheet 2).
The planning group should be able to identify a significant number of services and supports. Using community service directories and talking to funders can also assist in this process, particularly in relation to the formal supports. An effective way of identifying the local associations and organizations in the community is to talk to staff of local institutions such as the library, recreation facilities, community associations, churches and other places of worship (Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993). Each is a frequently used meeting place and staff may be able to provide you with a list of the organizations and associations that meet there. Additionally, the identification of community resources should, as much as possible, coincide with the other two information gathering processes (Samuels et al., 1995). For example, in getting the perspectives of community members, ask about their use and/or awareness of the community's services and supports.
The next step is to develop a more detailed inventory of the services and supports, both formal and informal. This information can be partially compiled using existing service directories. However, some agencies and organizations may have to be contacted directly and this will provide an additional opportunity to inform them about the community assessment process (Samuels et al., 1995). Use Worksheets 6 and 7 to assist you with this process.
For formal service providers, the information that may be useful to gather could include:
- name, address and telephone number of the organization;
- mission and purpose;
- number of clients served each year and other demographic information regarding the client population (this may also form part of the statistical profile of the community)
- days and hours of operation
- the sites at which the service is provided
- peligibility criteria
- a brief description of the core services provided
- the cost of the services, and
- funding sources (Bruner et al., 1993).
For community associations, clubs and informal support groups, the information which may useful to gather could include the following:
- mission and purpose of the organization or group
- description of the organizations core activities
- membership make-up and the number of members
- when and where the organization meets
- how one becomes a member
- benefits of membership for individual and the community
- a contact person for more information (Samuels et al., 1995).
If time and resources permit, the planning group may want to go beyond gathering the information suggested above, to assess service accessibility and coordination. An assessment of service accessibility could more closely examine service eligibility and availability including the physical, financial, cultural and other barriers that may exist. One way to examine the physical component of accessibility is to plot the community's resources on a map. This can help identify where services are absent, the need for transportation support, the geographic barriers that may exist and the extent to which location affects participation rates (Samuels et al., 1995; Bruner et al., 1993). An assessment of service coordination would examine the degree to which service providers coordinate and collaborate as they provide their services. Technical assistance may be needed to design and analyze a study that will successfully and sensitively examine these components of service provision (Samuels et al., 1995).
Initial analysis of community resources and assets should be relatively brief, recognizing that further analysis will be undertaken once all the information gathering strategies are complete. The analysis could include a listing of all agencies, organizations and groups by target group and function as well as an assessment of the strengths, weaknesses and capacities of each area (Samuel et al., 1995).