The purpose of needs assessment and context analysis

A needs assessment and context analysis require expenditure of effort and resources. Thus, you should know exactly what the goal of your analysis is.

Of course, these analyses will always address the target groups and the environment in which the project is embedded. However, the specific focus is crucial:

  • Target-group example: Does one of your potential funders want to know what the specific pattern of local needs looks like? Or do you want to determine whether and where there are gaps in the offerings provided by other actors, so you can help close them?
  • Project-environment example: Are you planning a national project and want to determine where to establish the first location? Or do you want to expand your project to other locations and need to determine what locations would be suitable?

Depending on the situation, you’ll need very different kinds of information to be able to answer your specific questions. This sounds as trivial as it is obvious but, in practice, can sometimes be difficult, because the data does not provide the desired degree of detail.

Instead of amassing terabytes of data, it’s a good idea to focus as tightly as possible on finding the right question to answer. This won’t necessarily make obtaining the information any easier, but you’ll reduce the risk of getting bogged down.

  • Keep in mind ...

    ... that the more precisely you know what kind of information you need, and for what purpose, the more effective your research will be.

    This might sound rather obvious, but many project managers tend to wildly collect all kinds of data ("Where's the harm? – The more data we have, the better!")

If you don’t have data at hand, you can work to collect it on your own. The possibilities for this are almost unlimited, ranging from very complex scientific surveys to methods that can be used with little previous knowledge and few resources by the project team itself. In the chapter on data-collection methods, we present a number of options, ranging from the relatively easy to the sophisticated.

  • A matter of relation | Ressources and costs

    To maintain an appropriate relationship between resources and costs, keep the following issues in mind:

    • the scope and amount of available project funds – the higher the budget, the more important it is to carry out a robust issue and context analysis.
    • the project’s geographical focus of support (note that in developing countries, reliable data can be hard to obtain).
    • the degree of complexity of the problem being addressed. For example, if the project is supporting the local music association’s annual summer concert, you won’t need to tap any scholarly expertise. The situation would be different if you wanted to reform music in public schools.

To get a comprehensive picture of initial conditions, local needs and the project environment, you should examine various specific issues:

  • What social problem is the project intended to address? Is the problem as significant as assumed?
  • What are the problem’s causes and effects, and how specifically are these related? How urgent is the problem? Where are there leverage points that can be used to bring about change?
  • Who are the project’s target groups? What are people’s specific needs and requirements?
  • What actors should be involved in the project?
  • What offerings are already provided in the project’s geographic target area? What results have they achieved to date? What gaps in support should be closed? Might it be possible to cooperate with other actors? Where is there a risk of falling into a competitive relationship?

Here we examine these five questions more closely.

Steering wheel