Norze, J; Horrillo, S; Evans, W 2021, Needs Assessment Framework Guide, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno


The University of Nevada, Reno Extension developed a Needs Assessment Framework to guide the needs assessment approach and process in the state. The Framework is designed to add consistency in the organizational approach to needs assessments and increase the validity of the results. The formal needs assessment process is utilized, in that, needs assessments conducted by Extension are systematic, data-based, result in a formal report, and used as part of the program planning process.

The formal needs assessment approach undertaken by Extension is intentionally designed to be beneficial to faculty, the organization, and Nevadans. Benefits to faculty include better use of their time and increased relationships and collaboration, while simultaneously meeting teaching and research responsibilities. The organizational benefits include more efficient use of resources, and up-to-date and readily available needs assessments for use by Extension professionals and the community. In the end, the purpose is to develop high-quality programs based on identified needs to strengthen the social, economic and environmental well-being of Nevadans. 

This Needs Assessment Guide sets the organizational standard for needs assessments and is designed for multiple audiences. Primarily, it articulates the Needs Assessment Framework and process that will be used by Program Teams to conduct needs assessments. For more information on Program Teams. Specialists and Extension Educators may find the information useful both as members of a Program Team and faculty responsible for the development and implementation of programs. Further, the Needs Assessment Guide outlines some ways Extension Educators and Specialists may find the statewide needs assessments helpful in their own work.

Definition of Needs Assessment

“A needs assessment is a systematic set of procedures undertaken for the purpose of setting priorities and decisions about program or organizational improvement and allocation of resources. The priorities are based on identified needs.” (Witkin & Altschuld, 1995, p. 4).

A needs assessment examines the nature and causes of a need—discrepancy between the current and desired state of affairs—to set priorities for planning and action. Therefore, a need is a concept that deserves careful analysis by those responsible for the planning of Extension programs because if it is not well defined, it can lead to ill-conceived programs. It also is important to remember that needs change over time and that needs assessment outputs only reflect the perspective of a person or group at a particular point in time. The change in a population’s needs is usually caused by changing standards of living, changing sociopolitical environments, and changing resources and technology.

Importance of Needs Assessments at Program Team Level

The Program Team structure provides a mechanism for faculty to work collaboratively to identify both county and statewide needs and priorities within a particular area. Program Teams are comprised of faculty with subject matter expertise. As such, conducting needs assessments at the Program Team level provides an opportunity to leverage expertise, time and energy in a more efficient manner than individual faculty needs assessments. If each academic faculty conducts their own needs assessment there could be considerable overlap and duplication in the scope, target audience and geographic focus. Moving to a Program Team level needs assessment structure helps assure alignment with Extension’s legislatively mandated program areas, while establishing a process to maintain relevancy and information on county and statewide needs for Extension professionals and the community.

Each Program Team will form one Needs Assessment Task Force (NATF) responsible for creating and implementing the needs assessment. The NATF will include technical expert(s) to advise and support the process along with faculty from the Program Team. This will help ensure that Extension faculty have the technical assistance and support needed to conduct needs assessments. Additionally, a team approach led by a technical expert will help reduce individual bias that can influence the needs assessment plan, implementation and interpretation of the data.

The Program Team needs assessments are meant to inform Extension’s priorities and guide the efforts of Working Groups to develop high-quality statewide programs and strategies to address the needs. See the Program Team Guidelines (2020) for more information on Program Teams and Working Groups.

Needs Assessment and Resource Allocation

The Program Team Chair may use available resources to aid in the completion of the needs assessment, including existing support staff, interns, hiring of additional staff (e.g., student, hourly/temporary employee), or contracting for services with an outside agency. However, once the needs assessment is completed, it should reflect Extension’s mission and exhibit the scientific rigor expected.

The needs assessment may also help in resource allocation through alignment of strategies and efforts across faculty, identification of new opportunities to seek extramural or other funding and allocation of existing resources for greater impact. The needs assessment results may also help faculty in determining that existing programs are no longer needed or must be adapted to meet current needs. The output may also be used to inform new communication strategies and partnerships with Extension’s stakeholders.

Unique Focus of Needs Assessments

Needs assessments should focus on the problems rather than means or solutions. It is critically important that the individuals involved in assessing needs avoid providing premature solutions to the problems being investigated. Many needs assessment efforts are initiated with the implicit assumption that problems are fully understood and their solutions are known. In this instance, the problems are frequently framed in terms of solutions and are often summed up in the word “more”, which too often leads to program maintenance and expansion—status quo (Kettner et al., 2013).

Commitment to business as usual is understandable, but it inhibits efforts to initiate change that meets the population’s real needs. Therefore, a needs assessment should initially focus on understanding the problems rather than generating solutions. In addition, a needs assessment should involve a fresh look at the problems without assumptions about services or activities. A needs assessment is a blueprint for long-range planning and “we can never assume we have the final word on people’s needs” (Etling & Maloney, 1995, p.10).

All Program Teams need to have a discussion of Extension’s mission and vision statements and needs assessments should flow from those documents. Generally, needs assessments should not start from a pre-defined set of problems, solutions or priorities. This is important to keep Extension viable and relevant within the state and the communities. However, some Program Teams may have a strong justification for starting with pre-defined broad program areas.

When to Conduct Needs Assessment

As “need” is a normative concept shaped by social, political, and economic environments, it is important for large organizations such as Extension to set up plans for continuous, ongoing needs assessments. Having plans to conduct needs assessments on a regular basis will allow Extension to become more responsive to the changing needs of Nevadans. Therefore, each Program Team is expected to conduct a comprehensive, formal needs assessment every five to seven years to inform change in Extension programming. However, the Program Team may conduct a non-formal needs assessment before the regular timeframe in case of a major internal (e.g., budgetary reductions) and/or external (e.g., political, economic, or societal change and natural disaster) event. A non-formal needs assessment usually requires a lower level of investment in the design, implementation and analysis, but the results must be credible. The non-formal needs assessment should provide a rapid overview of the emergency situation, an estimate of the immediate needs and an outline of the priorities for an early response from Extension.


Program Teams should plan for Needs Assessments to take 12-15 months. Key milestones with anticipated timelines are below:

  • Needs Assessment Plan Developed – 3 months
  • Needs Assessment Plan Implemented – 5 to 7 months
  • Data Analysis and Priority Setting Completed – 1 to 2 months
  • Needs Assessment Report Developed – 3 months

Following the development of the report, Program Teams are encouraged to submit the report for peer review and publication through Extension’s process: The Program Team may discuss and agree on additional needs assessment deliverables.

Specialist and Extension Educator Use of Needs Assessments

Program Teams will share the data, results and needs assessment report with Specialists and Extension Educators. Specialists are encouraged to utilize the results of the Program Team needs assessment in the development or adaptation of educational programs, in-service training and curricula. However, as subject matter experts, Specialists may need additional information on a priority identified or to supplement the needs assessments in order to provide a more comprehensive picture related to problems or needs within their subject matter area.

Each Program Team is expected to provide in-service training to Extension Educators following completion of the needs assessment. The in-service training will include a presentation of the needs assessment data and findings, how to utilize the state findings at the local level and help Extension Educators use the overall findings as a guide to explore their county-level needs and develop implications for their counties and programming. This approach of utilizing the Program Teams’ needs assessments, to the extent possible, will allow Extension Educators to more quickly address real issues in the county that connect to statewide needs, programs and/or expertise.

Limitations and Opportunities

All research and data collection activities—including needs assessments—have potential strengths and limitations associated with their design decisions. For formal needs assessment reporting, limitations should be carefully documented and often involve a brief discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the selected methods, sample, and analytical procedures, as well as an assessment of the validity and reliability issues related to the data. More generally, needs assessments can be a time-consuming process with challenges associated with analyzing complex normative, perceived, relative, and expressed needs to develop organizational and community priorities to be addressed. Ultimately, needs assessments are most effective if they offer concrete evidence to determine the best direction for addressing the priorities developed from the process.

The benefits of needs assessments include helping Extension and the communities it serves to allocate limited resources for maximum benefit. The process aims to help identify areas that will do the most good for the most people over time (Donaldson & Franck, 2016). The process also builds credibility with stakeholders for Extension program development and helps provide justification for new and ongoing program activity. Systematic needs assessments identify emerging information and issues, helping Extension remain relevant and nimble within our dynamic societal, environmental, and educational world. They also can clarify Extension’s activities, reduce mission drift and program duplication while identifying educational and service gaps, build strong relationships with community members and stakeholders, and improve educational delivery. Program Team level needs assessments offer the opportunity to improve organizational efficiencies and collaboration, while reducing the amount of time needed for the process. This structure also helps create increased capacity among Program Team members, helps instill consistency across needs assessment projects and provides a framework to apply statewide assessments to evaluate county-level needs.

Cautions and Caveats When Performing Needs Assessments

There are some common mistakes that people who conduct needs assessments (needs assessors) need to avoid making when performing needs assessments. These issues are very important to be aware of from the beginning (Donaldson & Franck, 2016).

Disregarding issues—This often occurs unintentionally because it is easy to overlook issues that emerge during the implementation of a needs assessment. For example, this might occur when needs assessors are not familiar wth the issue, do not feel it is an important issue, or feel that the issue is controversial.

Allowing undue influence—This often occurs when some community members or interested groups are more outspoken or persuasive than others. It is important that needs assessors use appropriate strategies to help obtain valid information from stakeholders, such as mixed-methods like Nominal Group Technique and Delphi Technique that facilitate cross-fertilization of ideas. In addition, needs assessors need to collect impressions from a broad audience including service providers, community leaders, and those affected by the problems to ensure all perspectives, not just a few are considered. By talking to a broader audience, needs assessors may have a more accurate, coherent picture of what is going on in the state.

Focusing too narrowly or too broadly—Another common mistake is when needs assessors focus needs assessments on only one topic, which is often their area of expertise. Professionals may be biased or unaware of other problems or needs not directly related to their expertise. Therefore, when performing needs assessments, it is important for the needs assessors to examine other issues including those that may not be currently addressed by Extension. Otherwise, the needs assessment may fail to uncover significant needs. Needs assessors should not look too broadly either because the resulting data may be unwieldy with insufficient depth in any area to establish a clear direction for action. In addition, it is important to recognize that statewide data can sometimes hide issues of different counties and/or communities. Needs assessors should not only look at statewide or national data but also county/community-level data to develop state-level, Program Team assessments.

Relying on only one data source—A comprehensive needs assessment demands ample contextual information and therefore tends to rely on mixed methods of data collection. The latter generates qualitative and quantitative data, which provides a comprehensive view of what is going on in the community, county and/or the state. A good needs assessment plan should include different methods of data collection that will be used. Only looking at existing data or records will not give needs assessors a complete picture of what is going on in a community, county or state. In addition, the quality of existing data is sometimes questionable.

Examples of Secondary Data Sources

  • Census data
  • Federal and state department information
  • United Way
  • Newspapers
  • University faculty and students
  • Local faith-based and community organizations
  • Local government task force/reports
  • Foundation reports
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics
  • Existing assessments

Needs Assessment Process

1. Technical Assistance

Extension has a limited number of faculty members with expertise in needs assessment. As a result, a Needs Assessment Support Team (NAST) has been formed to better assist each NATF in conducting its individual statewide needs assessment. The NAST is currently composed of three technical experts. If possible and feasible, the Evaluation Specialist will serve as the constant technical expert for all NATFs to ensure consistency in the needs assessment process across teams. Other technical experts will be cycled or rotated between Program Teams based on their availability.

The Program Team Chair is responsible for reaching out to the Evaluation Specialist and other technical experts to ascertain availability. The technical experts will advise their NATF on the selection and development of appropriate needs assessment tools, adequate sampling procedures, appropriate analysis techniques, appropriate prioritization techniques, and other topics as needed. Technical assistance (TA) is required for all NATFs when creating a new needs assessment plan, analyzing data and setting priorities. However, the level of technical assistance may vary from task force to task force based upon their expertise, skills and familiarity with the needs assessment framework.

2. Develop the Needs Assessment Plan

The Program Team will create a NATF that will develop a needs assessment plan to submit to the Program Team for validation. The needs assessment plan including the validation should be completed within 3 months. The NATF may be composed of 5 to 6 members. The members of the NATF will be selected from the Program Team and the community or jurisdiction that will be served. The NATF supported by the needs assessment plan should:

  • Define the purpose/goals of the needs assessment (boundary and scope)
  • Define and identify the target audience of the needs assessment (boundary and scope)
  • Identify the stakeholders and the potential use of the needs assessments
  • Identify types of needs assessments to be conducted
    • Normative Needs Assessment
    • Expressed Needs Assessment
    • Perceived Needs Assessment
    • Relative Needs Assessment
      • Identify approaches to the measurement of needs
    • Extrapolating from Existing Studies: Normative Needs
    • Using Resource Inventories: Normative Needs
    • Using Service Statistics: Expressed Needs
    • Using Delphi Techniques: Normative Needs
    • Using Focus Groups: Perceived Needs
    • Conducting Interviews: Perceived Needs
    • Conducting Social Surveys: Perceived Needs
    • Using Nominal Group Technique (NGT): Perceived Needs
    • Using Working Groups: Perceived Needs
    • Holding a Public Forum: Perceived Needs
    • Conducting Spatial Analysis: Relative Needs
  • Include the sample size and sampling procedures
  • Include the instrument selected or developed
  • Include a plan for IRB approval
  • Include data analysis techniques and methods
  • Include a plan of communication of the results
  • Include a timeline
  • Assign tasks based on skills and available resources

3. Institutional Approval

University of Nevada, Reno is required to provide oversight of research that involves human subjects. Therefore, no collection of primary data as part of the needs assessment should be initiated until the UNR Institutional Review Board (IRB), through Research Integrity, provides written documentation of exemption or approval. Once the needs assessment plan has been completed and the instrument(s) have been drafted, the Human Subjects Review form must be completed and submitted to the IRB. For more details on the procedures of IRB approval of human subject research.

4. Implementation of the Needs Assessment Plan

Once the needs assessment plan has been validated by the Program Team and has been approved by the UNR Institutional Review Board (IRB), the NATF may proceed with the implementation of the plan—data gathering. Two kinds of data, quantitative and qualitative, are expected to be collected. The implementation of the needs assessment plan should be completed within 5 -7 months. The Program Team is expected to oversee the implementation of the needs assessment plan to make sure the NATF adheres to the original plan.

5. Data Analysis and Priority Setting (1-2 months)

Once the data, quantitative and qualitative, has been collected, compiled and cleaned, appropriate statistical analyses should be run on the data to provide a valid description of the social conditions, the problems and the needs of the target audience including:

  • The nature of the condition
  • Characteristics of those experiencing the condition
  • Scale and distribution of the condition
  • Social values being threatened by the condition
  • Who defines the condition as a problem
  • How widely the condition is being recognized
  • Ethnic and gender considerations
  • Causes of the problem/issues
  • Criteria for action based on high priority needs:
    • PEARL test
    • Propriety – Is a program for the problem suitable?
    • Economics – Does it make economic sense to address the problem? Are there economic consequences if a problem is not solved?
    • Acceptability – Will a community accept the program? Is it wanted?
    • Resources – Is funding available or potentially available for a program?
    • Legality – Do current laws allow program activities to be implemented?

6. Communication of the Needs Assessment Results

Once the data has been analyzed and the priorities have been set, within 3 months, the NATF should prepare and communicate a report to the Program Team for decision-making. The report should summarize the needs assessment results and provide specific recommendations to the Program Team. It is important to keep in mind that a good report should follow these five principles:

  1. Use standards for comparison
  2. Keep it simple and not attempt to provide too much information
  3. Use charts and graphs in simple, non-technical language
  4. Include labels and non-technical languages
  5. Present data aggregation at a level that matches the recipients’ place in the organization

The NATF may also give an oral presentation of the report to the Program Team. The oral briefing may facilitate discussions between the task force and the Program Team on the outcomes of the needs assessment. If there are significant disagreements, the NATF may need to revise the report and finalize it accordingly.

Once the NATF has finalized the needs assessment report based on the feedback received from the Program Team, it will submit a final copy of the needs assessment report to the Program Team. The latter will use the final report to set Extension priorities for the Working Group’s program planning and action.

7. Needs Assessment Deliverables

Besides the statewide needs assessment report, the needs assessment may yield additional deliverables including the following:

  • County reports
  • Published articles
  • Presentations and posters
  • Teaching materials
  • Fact sheets
  • Dashboards
  • Data collection tools

In addition, the Program Team will provide in-service training to Extension Educators on the data, findings and use of the needs assessment reports for local priority setting and programming as described earlier.

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