In Focus

Community Assets and Needs Assessment: Citizens Chart the Path Forward

Parkside Neighborhood Center

The Opportunity Alliance in 2005 opened the Parkside Neighborhood Center, which is home to a community policing program, a child-abuse-prevention program, Head Start, and other offerings. The center is a hub for community-revitalization activities that have united local residents in a comprehensive community assets and needs assessment.

If the examined life is one worth living, to paraphrase Socrates, is the examined city one that is worth living in? Two cities are addressing that question with extensive information collected through comprehensive assessment projects that they have undertaken with Metis’s help. The participants in each of these sites hope that the results will lead to deep and lasting change, creating neighborhoods that become better places in which to live, work, play, and learn.

“The process of neighborhood transformation often begins with a sense of frustration and a realization that several individuals alone or agencies working in silos can’t repair a community’s problems. But to map the way forward, a thorough and collaborative assets- and needs-assessment process is a crucial starting point,” says Metis’s Donna Wilkens, who is overseeing such projects in the Cooper Lanning neighborhood of Camden, New Jersey, and the Parkside neighborhood of Portland, Maine.

Although Cooper Lanning and Parkside are very different, demographically, each has established a multi-partner collaborative that is trying to understand the strengths and challenges of the neighborhood and determine how the partners can work together, leveraging existing resources and procuring new ones, to improve the overall quality of life for residents.

The Center for Family Services in Camden, where 38 percent of the population lives below the poverty level (according to the U.S. Census), received a federal Promise Neighborhoods planning grant to conduct its community assessment. In Portland, The Opportunity Alliance received a grant from the John T. Gorman Foundation to support its assessment work. Both place-based projects are using the process as vehicles to engage residents in discussions about their perceptions of local strengths and challenges; target resources to families most in need; increase agencies’ awareness of how they can bolster community strengths; and support data-driven decision-making to tackle community needs.


In Camden, New Jersey, the $500,000 Promise Neighborhoods grant, awarded in January 2013, is helping a broad coalition of community groups to find solutions within one of the nation’s most crime-affected municipalities.

Metis’s grant professionals helped Camden attain its initial funding, and Metis research staff have facilitated the assets and needs assessment that the Promise Neighborhoods program requires. Working with researchers from Rutgers-Camden; the local nonprofit CamConnect, whose mission is to make data more accessible to the public; and the Center for Family Services, Metis developed assessment tools (such as surveys and interview protocols) and is analyzing the data retrieved from these instruments as well as from existing databases.

Education-related concerns topped the list of community needs, with stakeholders citing low student test scores, a perception of low parental involvement in education, apathy among school staff, violence and bullying in schools, and extremely low graduation rates, particularly among Latino students. In addition, Cooper Lanning residents echoed the United States Department of Agriculture classification of the neighborhood as a “food desert” with few quality grocery options, and cited a climate of danger that limits outdoor exercise.

Despite Camden’s well-documented and highly public struggles with public safety and a failing school system, the assessment revealed insights that could help level the playing field for Camden’s severely disadvantaged children. Some of the community’s assets that might provide a foundation for positive change included new public-safety measures (such as a new police force, citywide installation of security cameras, and neighborhood watch programs), redevelopment efforts in Cooper Lanning, the establishment of the Camden Higher Education & Healthcare Task Force, and high-quality health services at Cooper University Hospital. The goal of the planning grant is to take the study findings and develop a cradle-to-career strategic plan to put into action.

Data from the Camden assessment have already been used by partners to attain additional grant resources from the state and private sources and to launch a set of new programs such as Baby College (a series of classes in parenting fundamentals developed by the Harlem Children’s Zone), a food-access program, a comprehensive family literacy program, a neighborhood center, and a school-readiness program in partnership with AmeriCorps.


Parkside Neighborhood Center

In Portland, Maine, participants in the Parkside Neighborhood Center afterschool program paint a banner to advertise the annual Clean-Up Day.

Portland’s densely populated and diverse Parkside neighborhood in recent years has seen an increase in crime and community tension alongside a large influx of immigrants. Neither the immigrants nor the older-adult population were receiving adequate services, and tensions were brewing between new and older residents.

In 2005, The Opportunity Alliance, a nonprofit community action agency, opened the Parkside Neighborhood Center, which houses a community policing program, a local initiative of the national child-abuse-prevention program Community Partnerships for Protecting Children, a Head Start program, and afterschool and adult offerings. The next step was to begin a large community assessment, for which The Opportunity Alliance used J. T. Gorman Foundation funding to enlist Metis in fall 2014.

In designing the assessment process, Metis’s top priority was to engage the community in collecting and analyzing data—an approach that creates a sense of ownership of the findings and helps ensure that the path forward is relevant and sustainable. Metis recommended that The Opportunity Alliance establish a broadly representative advisory board composed of staff of the Parkside Neighborhood Center, local residents, service-delivery partners, and Opportunity Alliance staff.

Metis researchers worked with Dr. Kolawole Bankole of the Portland Public Health Division to help train 24 community health outreach workers whom he recruited to conduct the neighborhood survey, which was administered door-to-door and in gathering places such as the neighborhood center and churches. The survey, developed in collaboration with the advisory board, yielded considerable data from 428 respondents on education, aging, immigration, health, and safety issues. It also incorporated parts of an annual health assessment that was already being conducted by the health department in neighborhoods across the city. In addition, Metis conducted an online questionnaire of service providers and collected government-agency data on issues such as crime, the incidence of families receiving public-assistance benefits, child abuse and neglect, and school achievement, to compare Parkside to the city of Portland, the county, and the state.

Among the notable findings, according to Wilkens, was that Latino immigrants have been overlooked in Parkside amid the larger African and Middle Eastern immigrant populations. And, although crime has been decreasing, individuals’ sense of safety remains an issue for some residents.

“The survey’s key findings constitute an inventory of community assets and resources as well as a roadmap of what needs to be done,” Wilkens says, adding that Metis’s recommendations focus on engaging residents in interpreting the findings and prioritizing solutions. The advisory board has already named neighborhood safety and community engagement as the issues to focus on first while data from the assessment continue to be mined to help participants develop a strategic plan.

“Parkside neighbors participated actively in a high-touch, collaborative process, and it generated a great deal of interest and good information on which to base decisions,” says Metis President Stan Schneider. “They’re convinced of the need to rejuvenate the community, and this participatory process has brought them closer to doing that. Now, the community is moving forward.”


Can a community needs assessment make a long-term impact? Schneider points to two communities that are continuing to base decisions on the baseline data and recommendations that Metis helped uncover more than a decade ago.

In 2003, Miami-Dade Children’s Trust engaged Metis to conduct a needs-assessment survey that was similar to the ones undertaken in Parkside and Camden. The Trust is one of nine such revenue-generating county agencies established in Florida to improve the lives of children and families.

The Miami-Dade needs assessment was among the most comprehensive that Metis has conducted, covering broad social domains, including early childhood development, health, family support, youth development, and cross-cutting systems support. Some of Metis’s recommendations included expansion of Head Start, reliance on the Miami-Dade Children’s Trust to set quality standards for service providers, improvements in school-based health screening, and implementation of evidence-based programs neighborhood-wide.

“This work was very rewarding because Miami-Dade valued the process and the results, disseminated the findings, and used them to chart a course for the progress that it has now made in several very important areas,” Schneider says. The Children’s Trust has posted gains in many of the areas identified in the initial needs assessment, including quality of child-care services, expansion of school-based health care services, increases in child insurance coverage, and improved school readiness.

Schneider also offers the example of Georgia, where the nonprofit organization Georgia Family Connection Partnership oversees community collaboratives in each of the state’s 159 counties. These collaboratives have been using data to improve child and family well-being since 1995, when Metis helped them to pinpoint alarming circumstances for children and families in education, health, child welfare, and economic stability.

The precision of the community assessment has paid off. For example, the identification of extraordinarily high teenage pregnancy rates and incidence of low birth-weight babies in some counties led Georgia’s collaboratives to make significant improvements in these areas—so much so that the state’s national ranking on these indicators has dramatically improved over the years (see Kids Count, Annie E. Casey Foundation).

Schneider underscores that residents’ involvement is essential to collecting the best possible information to make the best decisions for families. “One of the reasons that I am optimistic that community assessment will lead to success in both Parkside and Cooper Lanning is that the two communities both invoke the central principles of Collective Impact—the idea that diverse agencies and groups must work together instead of operating in silos to effect broad community change,” he says. “Both projects comprise multiple partners that share agendas, measurement approaches and results; communicate effectively; develop activities that reinforce each other; and have the support of strong backbone agencies. These are invaluable assets in the service of community revitalization.”