Community Assessments: Three Examples of Asset-Oriented Assessment Tools
Community assessments are tools that allow Extension educators and their community partners to gather and analyze information about their community—typically to determine the current condition, or state, of a particular aspect of the community. While there are different modes of assessment, they are generally most useful when they capture the diversity of the community. Depending on the issue(s) being assessed, the community assessment may want to capture individuals representing the age and ethnic diversity of the community – including children; or the assessment may need to capture the diversity of households in a community: families with children, singles, multi-generational households, couples without children, couples with grown children. In addition, the assessment may be focused on a particular program, such that clients, providers, program administrators and non-participants may be needed to be effective. The broader the community assessment, the more inclusive, diverse and multi-dimensional those participating in the assessment need to be.
Community assessments are often conducted to collect data that affects how programs get implemented. More specifically, they can:
- Gauge public opinion, rather than rely on the opinion of a few key leaders, local gossip or stereotypes;
- Increasing awareness of a particular issue;
- Create an opportunity for community input and/or ownership of the process;
- Be required to satisfy a grant or program.
Regardless of the reason for conducting the assessment, it can be a powerful tool for moving an issue forward in your community.
There are different modes of assessment, and the mode chosen should take into consideration three factors:
- the time available for the assessment,
- information needed from the assessment, and
- the diversity to be captured by those participating in the assessment.
Three simple assessment modes are described that require little prior knowledge by the participants: asset walks, asset quilts, and a survey. There are other means of community assessment, such as personal interviews, focus groups, public forums, or nominal (informal) group processes. Numerous resources are available about implementing these modes; for example, Rotary International has a publication titled, “Community Assessment Tools” that describes, provides instructions, and gives examples for eight different modes (see http://www.rotary.org/RIdocuments/en_pdf/605c_en.pdf).
- Applicable context: This technique works well with a large or small number of people (people can be divided into smaller groups if necessary, see below), and it can be part of a larger program/event, if time allows.
- Description: Simply WALK (this is key!) your group through your community. Throughout the walk, ask those with you to write down and/or talk about what they observe – it could be vacant lots, buildings, businesses, people, etc. (Walking is key because it is slow, and it allows the group to change its composition during the walk – people get into conversations with one another, change who they walk beside, etc.). The ideas are transcribed into a single list after the walk is completed. (In today’s era, there are additional ways to capture the observations: record conversations on iPhones/voice recorders for transcription; have people take pictures of what they observe, annotate them, and email/text them; or simply with paper, clipboards and pencils.)
- Time requirement: It may take one to two hours to walk through a neighborhood, or require multiple walks to get a complete assessment of the entire community (e.g., downtown one day, industrial district another, various neighborhoods, newer retail centers/neighborhoods, etc.). It can take another few hours to transcribe notes and assemble photographs into a meaningful format that can be shared with others (see “e” below).
- Information gathered: This technique is most effective when the assessment concerns land use (e.g., identifying opportunities in your community that require space), or other physical/natural assets. Asset walks also can be used to identify the kinds of businesses or organizations in a community (e.g., the opportunities for personal interaction). Sometimes this is a great conversation starter for a group, organization or community: this technique can be used to simply get people to talk with one another, and from this, they are able to identify areas of common interest to pursue more deeply. Observations tend to be diverse and very detailed.
- Participation diversity: You can have as many people participate in this assessment as you like; in fact, sometimes it is really interesting to break a large group (more than eight) into smaller groups and have them start at different points in the community. Even though the groups will be walking the same streets, their perspectives will be different. This is also a great activity if a larger project needs to engage people across socio-economic classes, as it can encourage people to interact (if groups are mixed appropriately).
- Drawing conclusions from the assessment: Once the observations are collected from those participating in the walk, evaluate the observations. First, simply tally the number of times a particular theme, observation, specific asset, or idea is made as the observations and comments are reviewed. This will help identify the most important themes, assets and ideas to pursue with a program/project. Second, link comments across themes, assets and ideas. That is, associate themes with particular assets and ideas to begin to develop plans for moving forward with issues or projects. (This second step corresponds to the quilting component of the “Asset Quilting” exercise below, and it can be done in a group context by presenting your tally of themes, assets, and ideas to the group and have them make connections between them.)
- Applicable context: This technique works well with six to 30 people, particularly with as diverse a group as possible. It is an ideal exercise/hands-on activity for a meeting or workshop that involves creative thinking and/or planning. Since participants will be working in smaller groups, do not have too many small groups so you can listen in on each group’s discussion and help them along, if necessary.
- Description: Prior to conducting this exercise, determine the categories of assets to be identified that are related to the issue/project that is motivating the assessment. (See Appendix A for a list and description of asset categories.) At the event, hand out index cards (3” x 5” work well) and pencils to participants, making sure each participant has enough cards as assets to identify. Have participants identify specific community assets on index cards (one asset per card). [Rather than give the participants a list of assets, announce the assets orally and have them write one down at a time.] Then have three to five of the participants work to make a ‘quilt’ of the cards – the idea is for the participants to strategically or creatively connect all of the assets to generate new project ideas, new perspectives on their community, etc. (More than six groups becomes unmanageable.)
- Time requirement: Give people a short time to identify their assets, maybe 30 seconds between each one. This forces them to write down the 1st thing that comes to mind, and this helps to identify some unique assets. Allow about 30 minutes for quilt development: five to ten minutes for the individuals to share the assets they identified, and the remainder to identify any points of connection among the collection of assets and weave a story about those connections.
- Information gathered: This exercise is great for simply identifying assets in a community. Tailor the types of assets the participants identify to the issue you want to assess; however, try to have people identify a personal talent – it makes sure there are assets that may not “fit” with the others, and makes the exercise more interesting. It is also great for getting the group to think differently about the community, since they will probably not be working with the “usual” assets. Lastly, the quilt outcome (and logic behind it; the “story”) could easily be translated into an action plan, if that is needed.
- Participation diversity: Diversity among the participants is inherently limited by the size of the group. To the extent that diversity does exist among participants, you can either spread the diversity across groups, in which case you might get similar ‘quilts’ from the exercise; or, you can have all the groups be homogeneous, so there will be diverse quilts across groups.
- Drawing conclusions from the assessment: The first major outcome of this exercise is the identification of community assets themselves. Be sure to capture the assets listed on the index cards. However, the “quilts” also need to be captured, as these represent creative ideas of linking assets – an initial step toward developing an action plan and strategy to address the issue you are assessing. To capture the quilts, take a picture of how the cards are physically organized, but it is best to have good notes as the group tells its “story” of how it came to link the assets together. The group leader could write up a short summary of the quilt as well.
What’s Good About _? Survey
- Applicable context: Surveys are best utilized when wanting to capture specific information from a large group of people.
- Description: A one-page survey used often to initiate strategic planning processes is provided (see Appendix B); it asks the respondents to rate more than 40 different community assets on a scale of 1 (poor) to 3 (excellent); it also includes a handful of open-ended questions, so respondents can identify their favorite thing about their community, what they want more of in the community, what they don’t want in their community. Of course, the questions can be modified to focus on a particular issue.
- Time requirement: The survey should only take five- minutes to complete, which is a strength. The time required for promoting/distributing the survey and tallying the results will vary.
- Information gathered: The survey, in its current format, collects individuals’ perceptions of different community characteristics and services. When aggregated, the most liked/appreciated/important characteristics or services in a community can be identified.
- Participation diversity: Surveys can provide the greatest degree of diversity, as it can be administered broadly within a community or group, ideally capturing the entire relevant population. Sampling and statistical significance is not too important for community assessments; try to get as many responses of relevant people and run with the results.
- Distribution possibilities: Ideas for distributing the survey to get maximum responses would include: send it (or the web address of an online version) out with water bills, ask multiple organizations to collect responses from their memberships, hand out the survey at a community event – school open house, community festival, fair, etc.
- Drawing conclusions from the assessment: One strength of surveys is that the results can be quantified. Using the “What’s Good About _?” survey, calculate an average score for each category in the box; then sort the categories by this average score. Those categories with higher average scores are the more appreciated/better services; these represent assets. Those categories with the lowest average scores are logical areas to explore further and potentially address. Present the results of this survey to a group and ask them to talk about why the scores are high or low. Also try to tabulate the responses from the open-ended questions at the bottom of the survey by counting the number of times a response is given for each question.
Community Development-Data Information and Analysis Laboratory, Iowa State University Extension. 2001. “Preparing for a Collaborative Community Assessment.” CRD 334; http://www.extension.iastate.edu/Publications/CRD334.pdf
Rotary International. “Community Assessment Tools: A Companion Piece to Communities in Action: A Guide to Effective Projects.”