Seven design thinking principles for rethinking social sector needs assessment

needs-assessment

By Kal Joffres

The needs assessment is one of the most critical tools to design interventions in the social sector but it is long due for an overhaul. When it comes to understanding the technology needs of social organisations, we’ve been asking the wrong questions for too long. Many assessments still focus on questions such as; the percentage of NGOs that use cloud services or customer relationship management tools.

In truth, these kinds of questions tell us very little about how well organisations are using technology. The questions are difficult for people in social organisations to answer because they require a good grasp of different technical terms. Most organisations don’t even know what they don’t know when it comes to their needs and what technology is available to fulfil them.

Adopting approaches from design thinking may hold the key to rethinking how we do needs assessment in the social sector.

Earlier this month, TechSoup brought together people from social organisations across Asia to think about the future of technology adoption in organisations, including how technology ‘needs assessments’ are done. These are seven principles that come out from those discussions:

1. Focus on user needs or processes rather than tools

What does it matter if an organisation uses CRM if they are just using as a glorified address book? What if a useful technology is deployed to a non-critical function while a critical function continues to use an outdated approach? A good understanding of an organisation’s current use of technology and its needs is going to start with questions that have nothing to do with specific tools or technology: “How do you find out about a donor? How do you keep track of them?”

Issa Cuevas-Santos from Gawad Kalinga takes it even further and looks at the needs of individuals within organisations, starting with three questions:

  1. What do you do?
  2. What do you need?
  3. What do you want to accomplish?

As the information is analysed, answers to these questions can be mapped against areas where more or better use of technology can improve a system or process in an organisation.

2. Enable discovery

Most organisations don’t know where they’re missing out when it comes to technology because they don’t fully understand what technology can offer them. Needs assessments work best when they help organisations gain a better understanding of what technology can offer them.

Shufang Tsai with the Frontier Foundation says that when she speaks with NGOs about their technology needs it triggers a thought process about how technology might be used. These organisations will often come back a few days later with additional thoughts about how they could use technology.

Discovery might also be prompted — but this needs to be done with care to avoid getting false positives. For example, in the needs assessments we do for our expertise-based volunteering platform ExpertCloud, we prompt organisations to think about how they might make use of legal or HR expertise. We then ask follow-up questions to understand how strong their need is for this.

3. Look for extreme uses and users

Knowing what technology can do and knowing how it can be applied in the social sector are two very different things. Looking at the extremes of technology adoption — both very high adoption and very low — as well as for unusual uses can be enlightening to even veteran technologists. Glenn Fajardo from TechSoup Asia recounted a story of how cameras played a critical role at the Berlani Foundation in the Philippines because it’s virtually the only way the childhood memories of orphans can be recorded. A good needs assessment learns from these kinds of applications and sees them as an opportunity for other organisations to better use technology.

4. Focus on the users

Sometimes needs assessments are designed assuming that people at the top of the organisation best understand the organisation’s needs. Issa says the contrary is often true. The understanding of technology needs in the organisation gets fuzzier the higher you go up. The people who have the closest contact with the organisation’s operations and stakeholders — the users — often have the most practical thinking about needs and technology use.

5. Build a body of hunches to test

Each interview with a social organisation is an opportunity to improve the needs assessment process. As you collect data, use it to discover patterns and potential commonalities between needs in different organisations. Your interviews might still start with open-ended questions like “Tell me about how you keep in touch with people outside the organisation” but as you do more interviews you will be able to zoom into more specific questions like “Do you have an approach to retaining volunteers?” that you have identified as issues elsewhere.

6. Pair needs assessment with testing

While needs assessments are usually conducted for the sake of an intervention they are often divorced from that intervention. A report is produced from the needs assessment, the report is interpreted, interventions are designed, and then implemented. If the interpretation was problematic, it may take some after the intervention is underway before this comes to light.

This process can be shortened by interpreting needs during the needs assessment process and “prototyping” potential interventions with users. The prototype doesn’t necessarily have to be fancy. It could be as simple as asking users “If there was a service that did X and Y, would you sign up for it today?” It could also be putting user interface sketches in front of a user and asking them if it’s something that would solve their problem.

These prototypes are not just a useful way of checking how the information is being interpreted, they’re also great conversation pieces to uncover more about how an organisation thinks about or integrates technology into what they do.

7. Use quantitative methods to test the validity of your needs assessment at scale

Qualitative research methods like the ones mentioned here are useful for examining a few dozen organisations at most. Extending your research to thousands of organisations can only be done through quantitative methods like surveys. However, quantitative methods should be used to test whether specific needs or behaviours in social organisations — the ‘hunches’ — are true across a broader group. They shouldn’t be aimed at discovering new trends or behaviours in organisations. This means that quantitative research comes at the end of a discovery process that helps to determine the relevant questions to ask in a survey.

 

Getting needs assessments right plays a huge role in ensuring that we build social interventions that make sense. While some organisations have already begun practicing these principles in one way or another, many still focus on very surface — and sometimes misleading — information in assessing needs. These seven principles are a basis for rethinking how we do needs assessments in the social sector that brings the process back to people’s needs and how organisations work.

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