June 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA1

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Examining Community Needs Through A Capacity Assessment

Examining community needs through a capacity assessment. The main purpose of the study was to determine the emerging issues and concerns in Defiance County, Ohio as perceived by community citizens. Data were collected through a series of focus group interviews and a county-wide mail survey. Community leaders are using the findings of the study to avoid duplication of efforts and to design programs that address the most critical issues and concerns of the community. This participatory approach to a capacity assessment resulted in a synergistic effort that provided a more accurate picture of community issues and concerns.

Ruben D. Nieto
Assistant Professor
Ohio State University Extension
Columbus, Ohio
Internet Address: nieto.1@osu.edu

Dona Schaffner
Assistant Professor
Ohio State University Extension
Holmes County
Millersburg, Ohio
Internet Address: schaffner.1@osu.edu

Janet L. Henderson
Associate Professor
Department of Agricultural Education
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio
Internet Address: henderson.1@osu.edu

Program planning is an organized and systematic approach for moving from ideas to actions (Needs Assessment 1995). The essential steps in the program planning process include: a) identifying issues, b) determining needs, c) setting goals and objectives, d) assessing resources, e) forming a plan, f) implementing the plan, and g) evaluating results. As extensively recognized in the literature, a critical element in adult education program planning is needs assessment (Boone, 1985; Witkin, 1984). Traditional approaches to needs assessment focus on community gaps and deficiencies. People providing needs assessment information see themselves as individuals with special needs that can only be met by outsiders (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993). People become consumers of services with no incentive to be producers in the deficiency-oriented needs assessment approaches.

Capacity assessment is based upon the capacities, skills, and assets of community members, agencies, and organizations. The capacity assessment conducted in this study identified the emerging issues and concerns in the community rather than focusing exclusively on community deficiencies and gaps. Community members at all levels need to be involved in decisions that affect them; they should help plan programs where they are expected to be participants (Needs Assessment for, 1995).

Purpose and Objectives of the Study

The main purpose of the study was to determine the emerging issues and concerns in Defiance County, Ohio as perceived by community citizens. Located in Northwest Ohio on the Indiana border, the county's population is 39,350 (Crawford, 1992) with a county seat population of 16,768. Although basically a rural area with 1,050 farms, the manufacturing community produces a variety of items. The majority of production activity involves metal and machine trades with emphasis on automotive and related industries.

Defiance County has numerous agencies, organizations, and individuals which provide services for people in four general service areas: a) health and emergency, b) education, c) family, and d) community. Collaborative efforts appeared to be lacking among local agencies and organizations in identifying issues and concerns of Defiance County citizens. Needs assessments conducted by community agencies/organizations tend to have a very narrow focus. A need to conduct a comprehensive and integrated assessment of the county's capacities and emerging issues was identified.

The United Way Board, Defiance County Commissioners, Northwestern Ohio Community Action, and Ohio State University Extension teamed together in May, 1994 to conduct a capacity assessment of the county. Community leaders are using the findings of this study to avoid duplication of efforts among agencies and organizations and to design programs that will address the most critical issues and concerns of the community. This participatory approach to a capacity assessment resulted in a synergistic effort that provides a more accurate portrait of community issues and concerns.

The specific objectives of the capacity assessment were to: a) identify the emerging issues and concerns of community members in the service areas of health and emergency, education, family, and community; b) assess the level of knowledge and frequency of use of existing agencies/organizations by community members; c) determine reasons preventing citizens from using local services, and d) describe community members participating in the study on selected demographic characteristics.


Research Design

Descriptive research was the design for this capacity assessment. The project was designed to determine the perceived emerging issues and concerns of community citizens that need to be addressed by local agencies and organizations.

Population and Sample

A steering committee, consisting of 12 community leaders, was established during the Summer of 1994. Funding agencies for the capacity assessment identified key leaders representing the four major service areas in the community. In terms of group dynamics, the investigators believed that a group between 10 and 12 individuals would provide a setting for effective communication and decision making (Witkin & Altschuld, 1995).

The main purpose of the steering committee was to provide direction and support for the capacity assessment. Committee membership consisted of people throughout the county, representing various occupational (e.g., county commissioners, county school officials, social agencies, churches, higher education, and government officials) and age groups. The logo "Defiance CAN (Capacities, Assets, and Needs)" and the slogan "Building the Future for Defiance County" were created by the steering committee for the project.

In addition, the steering committee assisted the principal investigators with: a) writing a questioning route for the focus group interviews, b) field testing focus groups, c) selecting focus group participants, d) identifying emerging issues and concerns from the focus groups, e) designing a county-wide survey, and f) interpreting and formulating recommendations from the capacity assessment findings.

Twelve focus group interviews involving 104 people were conducted throughout the county. Three focus groups were conducted per service area with a recommended number of 7-10 participants per focus group (Krueger, 1994). Findings from this qualitative approach were used to design a county wide-survey. The target population for the study consisted of 14,070 households in Defiance County (Crawford, 1992). A stratified random sample of 380 households was drawn by geographic location (Krejcie & Morgan, 1970). People receiving the survey were asked to answer the instrument from the total family/household point of view.


A questioning route for the focus group interviews, consisting of eight questions, was developed by the researchers. The steering committee assisted in designing, refining, and sequencing focus group questions. The focus group questions were field tested with the steering committee. Additionally, the field test was used as part of the focus group training for moderators and assistant moderators.

Findings from the focus group data were used in the identification of community issues and barriers preventing citizens from using existing services for the county-wide survey. The steering committee played an important role in reducing the number of issues in the final version of the instrument.

The questionnaire consisted of four sections: a) Section I - areas of concern - consisted of 45 issues identified from focus group interviews; responses to the perceived importance of the issues and agencies' performance in addressing those issues were rated on a five-point Likert scale, from low (1) to high (5); b) Section II - level of knowledge and frequency of use of local agencies and organizations - listed 50 local agencies and organizations; responses to this section were rated using a four- point Likert scale, from low (1) to high (4); c) Section III - reasons preventing citizens from using existing services - provided 14 reason statements; responses to this section were rated using a four-point Likert scale, from low (1) to high (4); and d) Section IV - selected demographic characteristics - included 11 questions (i.e., age, gender, years in the community, race, educational level, marital status, hours worked as volunteer, employment status, occupation, adults and children in household, and household income).

A panel of experts, Ohio State University faculty and the steering committee, established content validity of the instrument. A field test was conducted with 15 local community members to establish face validity. Test-re-test of the survey was used to establish reliability. The instrument was piloted with a convenience sample of 32 students at a local college; one week wait was the time frame between the first and second administrations of the survey. Percentages of agreement for items in Section I, II, and III of the instrument were 70% or higher.

Data Collection

Focus group interviews were conducted with 12 groups (three focus groups per service area) during the Fall of 1994. One- hundred forty-two individuals were invited through a telephone recruitment interview to participate in the focus groups. Seventy -four percent (104) of the invitees attended. The focus groups were conducted in strategic locations throughout the county. Focus group interviews were tape recorded and lasted approximately one hour and fifteen minutes.

A mail survey was the data collection method used for the county-wide capacity assessment (380 households). People in the community were informed about the capacity assessment via local newspaper, TV, and radio programming. A postcard alerting people about the study and their selection for the research project was sent during April 1995. A mailing and two follow-ups with initial non-respondents were used to gather the data.

Fifty-two percent (199) of the random sample responded to the survey with 90% (180) providing useful data, resulting in a 47% usable response rate. To control for non-response error, 10% (18 households) of the non-respondents were randomly selected to obtain their data. Telephone interviews were used to gather data on Section I, the main component of the capacity assessment, and selected demographic questions (i.e., age, gender, years in the community, educational level, employment status, occupation, and adults and children in the household). Sections II and III, and some sensitive demographic questions, were excluded from the non- response follow-up due to the time factor through a telephone interview and the uncooperative nature of the non-respondent group.

No statistically significant differences were found between data from the telephone interviews and data from the mail surveys. Data from telephone interviews and mail surveys, therefore, were pooled and survey findings were generalized to the sample and target population.

Data Analysis

Quantitative data from the field test, pilot test, county- wide mail survey, telephone interviews, and focus groups' demographic questions were analyzed with SPSS for Windows 6.1. Descriptive statistics were used to organize and summarize the data (i.e., frequencies, percentages, means, and standard deviations, and correlation coefficients). T-test and Chi Square were used to determine if significant differences existed between responses from the mail survey and telephone interviews.

Focus group data were analyzed using a qualitative data analysis technique. First, the data were divided into manageable portions for analysis. Then, the researchers arranged the data for regularities and patterns. Two questions were kept in mind by the researchers when reading and reviewing the data: a) Which comments were occurring on a regular basis? and b) Which comments were similar to each other?


Focus Group Interviews

Twelve focus group interviews were conducted with an average of seven people per session. Participants were between the ages of 16 and 68; the mean age was 43 with a standard deviation of 9.8. Sixty percent of the focus group attendees were female. The majority (89%) were Caucasian; five percent were Hispanic. Sixty- three percent had attended post-secondary education; three percent had completed less than high school education. Eighty-one percent were married, 10% were single, and 9% were divorced.

Fifty-one percent of the participants' household reported yearly income between $30,000 and $59,999; 13% reported earning $29,999 or less, and 36% reported earning $60,000 or more per year. Almost three-fourths of the participants were employed full -time; 13% had a part-time employment status, and 5% were retired. Approximately 85% of the participants had either professional or managerial positions, while 4% had clerical or unskilled labor job occupations.

Community members in the focus groups felt that local agencies and organizations networked well, but that organizations needed to have better cooperation and coordination for program development and delivery. Successful activities and programs were identified for community members of all ages. Schools serve as a focal point for the community, particularly in rural areas. Focus group attendees mentioned that the county is fortunate to have two local colleges available for citizens. The cooperation between law enforcement, fire protection, and emergency medical services was assessed as very good. The two local hospitals serve as base for outreach emergency services.

Health issues and concerns identified by focus group participants included: AIDS awareness, new state regulations affecting local hospitals and emergency services, lack of knowledge for necessary immunizations required by schools, health issues of senior citizens over 65, resources that affect Medicaid, pre-natal care, understanding of child development, and lack of preventative medicine.

Lack of services and funding for youth in the community was identified as an issue. A need for youth activities (12 - 18 years old) was specifically mentioned. Other issues and concerns related to youth included: students' poor attitude, lack of motivation toward school, lack of a work ethic, deteriorated value system, and an unwillingness to participate in educational programs. Currently, schools are dealing with more violent type of behaviors. Breakdown of the family was identified as a major cause of youth-related problems.

Lack of parenting skills was cited in many focus groups. Other family issues included: housing options for adults with mental disabilities, stigma of counseling, emotional abuse counseling for all ages, counseling for people in the court system, changing family structure, sex education at a young age, and child abuse.

Educational issues centered around the fullest use of the local colleges, the changing technology for which the work force needs to be continually trained, and cost sharing of continuing education courses required for employment. Another issue that emerged was that children often are not ready to learn when arriving at schools.

Community issues facing the residents included understanding the difference between 911 and enhanced 911; lack of housing, particularly for low income people; the changing face of community composition in terms of "ethnic" and "urban" types of problems; antiquated telephone systems; people moving from large cities to escape taxes and high costs of living; and a need for planned development of rural areas.

Focus group participants mentioned that the majority of community members are not open-minded toward diversity and multi- cultural groups. As the community is changing, citizens seem to be close-minded toward diversity issues. New residents, particularly minority groups, appear to have difficulty learning about services available to meet their needs.

Focus group participants indicated that the best mechanisms to inform people about services and educational programs available in the community were word of mouth, TV and radio programs, networking, directory of services, community bulletin boards, newspaper, and printed materials send home through school children.

County-Wide Mail Survey

Perceived priority issues were calculated through the use of the indirect approach to measure people's perceptions recommended by Borich (1980). The rankings were calculated using the Borich formula which calculates a priority rating based upon the mean importance and performance scores. The Borich model consists of determining need scores by subtracting the perceived performance score from the perceived importance score, and then multiplying the result by the perceived average importance score.

The following formula represents an adaptation of the Borich model: Priority Score = (mean importance score -mean performance score)* (mean importance score). For exampe, the mean importance score for the issue "Juvenile Gangs" was 3.86 and the mean performance score for the same issue was 2.74. Then the formula will read as follows:

    Juvenile Gangs Priority Score = (3.86-2.74)*(3.86)

    Juvenile Gangs Priority Score = 4.32

Table 1 exhibits the overall priority rankings for the 45 issues in all four service areas. As demonstrated in the table, the top five priority issues in the community were: a) juvenile gangs, b) water quality, c) parental involvement, d) school dropout rate, and e) parenting skills. None of the issues under the health and emergency service area was ranked among the overall top 12 issues.

Table 1
Rank Order of Emerging Issues and Concerns in Defiance County, Ohio
Issue(I - P) Ia
1. Juvenile Gangs4.32
2. Water Quality4.19
3. Parental Involvement4.05
4. School Dropout Rate3.50
5. Parenting Skills3.26
6. Juvenile Rehabilitation2.91
7. Enhanced 9112.46
8. Alcohol/Drug Abuse2.46
9. Law Enforcement2.44
10. Sex Education2.37
11. On-job Career Training2.26
12. Long-term Care for the Elderly/Disabled2.20
Note: a The issue prioritization ranking score was calculated using the Borich's formula, where "I" represents the perceived importance of the issue and "P" represents the respondents' perceived performance of how well the agencies and organizations in the community are addressing each issue.

The majority of the people responding to the survey seemed to have "little" to "no knowledge" about the 50 community agencies and organizations listed on the instrument. Similarly, most respondents do not use these community agencies and organizations on a regular basis.

Lack of information about services available was the main reason preventing respondents from using existing services from community agencies and organizations, followed by lack of eligibility.

The majority (60%) of respondents were between the ages of 37 and 66, with a mean age of 51 and a standard deviation of 17. Almost two-thirds were male. Approximately two-thirds have lived in the county between 25 and 60 years, with a mean of 37 years and a standard deviation of 19 years. The majority (97%) were Caucasian, while the remaining 3% was represented by Hispanic and other ethnic groups. Seventy-six percent indicated that the number of adults living in their household ranged between two and three. Additionally, 60% indicated no children living at the address, 32% responded with one to two children, and 8% indicated three to five children.

Thirteen percent reported less than a high school education and 44% are high school graduates. Forty-three percent indicated post-high school education with or without a degree. Eighty percent were married, while 20% were widowed, single, or divorced. Eighty-two percent volunteered zero hours per week, 14% volunteered between one and six hours per week, while approximately 4% volunteered seven or more hours per week to the community.

Over fifty percent of the respondents were employed full time. Five percent were in the self-employed category and another 8% were not employed out of the home; 21% were retired. The largest area of occupation for respondents was skilled labor at 27%. Eight percent of the respondents indicated service providers as their occupation. Homemakers represented 15% of the respondents' occupations. Forty-three percent of the yearly household income ranged from $25,000 to $55,000. Eight percent have less than $9,000 and 12% with household income of over $85,000.



The scores with the highest positive value resulting from the Borich's (1980) needs assessment model represent the highest priority issues in the community. Ten of the top 12 issues fell within the community and education services areas, while the remaining two represented the family service area. None of the top 12 issues captured the health and emergency issues. Community members seem to be concerned with issues that are closely related to personal and community safety.

Findings from this study revealed that the majority of community members are not fully aware of the existing agencies and organizations in the county. Moreover, people in the community do not regularly use the services offered by local agencies and organizations. These findings correspond with lack of information about services available in the community identified as the main reason preventing citizens from using local services.

Some unintended outcomes of this project included: a) education and awareness - not only did community leaders participating in the steering committee learn about evaluation and research application from the needs assessment process, but also focus group participants became aware of community issues and concerns; b) networking - steering committee members and focus group participants learned from each other and built professional and personal relationships that could develop into future collaborative local programming efforts; and c) program design - as a result of focus group sessions some participants indicated that they were planning to use the information in other projects.


This capacity assessment was an example of participatory evaluation where community members, represented by the steering committee, were actively involved in the development, direction, and implementation of the capacity assessment process. The goal of participatory evaluation is to provide information for program improvement or organizational development. Participatory evaluation seeks to be practical, useful, formative, and empowering.

Encouraging the steering committee group to begin addressing issues collaboratively is highly recommended. Additional information about the capacities and assets of agencies, organizations, and individuals in the community needs to be gathered in order to plan and deliver programs addressing the top 12 priority issues.

Networking with other agencies, organizations, and individuals in neighboring counties with similar demographic characteristics should be considered. Determining if similar issues and concerns are being confronted by surrounding communities would be helpful in planning and implementing programming efforts. For instance, if neighboring communities are already addressing some of the identified top priority issues, Defiance County might learn and benefit from their experiences.

Communicating project results to people via community forums throughout the county is suggested by the investigators. Holding community forums will assist investigators and the steering committee in confirming the capacity assessment data. In other words, the major issues and concerns of the community reflected through the capacity assessment need to be validated. Moreover, the capacity assessment information could be used to justify grants, design local programs, hire staff, promote collaboration among agencies, support different task forces, and assist community funders (i.e., county commissioners, chamber of commerce) in decision making when allocating monies.

The identification of issues, concerns, needs, capacities, and assets in the community should be an on-going process. This notion of continual assessment was expressed by the steering committee throughout the planning and implementation of this project and was clearly depicted in the slogan "Building the Future for Defiance County" created for the project.


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