Radiance Blog

Creative Ways to Get Useful and Actionable Data for a Small Budget Needs Assessment

The American Evaluation Association invited their Topic Interest Groups (TIGs) to each take over their blog for a week in 2018. As part of the Needs Assessment TIG, Beth and Kate were invited to write one of the blogs with tips for doing needs assessments. With help from Matt Bruce, they wrote about how to do a needs assessment with a small budget. This post originally appeared on the AEA365 blog on March 21, 2018.


Hello! We’re Beth Mulligan and Kate Darwent from Corona Insights, a firm that provides research, evaluation, and strategic consulting services for government and nonprofit organizations.  We are often contacted by clients who have both very limited resources and a very strong desire to understand and address the needs in their community (whether “their community” is low-income residents of a city or county, library patrons, Latinx children in their school district, or some other group). Here are some suggestions for creative ways to get useful and actionable data for a small budget needs assessment.

  1. Use secondary data sources.  Start by searching for and reviewing relevant existing reports or datasets.  This may include reports from state agencies or national organizations that reveal insights about your target population, relevant Census data, or previous studies conducted by your client.  Making sure you know what is already known before collecting new data is the first step to managing limited resources.
  2. Use your client’s resources creatively.  Although the client may have a limited budget to pay for outside help, they may be able to offer their own time and effort, or may have volunteer staff available, or may have other budgets for materials like printing or mailing that they can use.  Help the client to determine where they most need your help and expertise, and where they can take on tasks themselves with your guidance.
  3. Remember that perfect is the enemy of good.  Although we may prefer to conduct 15 key person interviews, would conducting two be better than zero?  Oftentimes, yes.  And though we would like to survey everyone in the community by mail, and send no fewer than two follow-up mailings, is the information we will get from a single mailing better than nothing? Would the information from an open-link survey or an intercept survey at some community events be better than nothing?  The judgment about whether to use what we may think of as lower-quality methods depends on the trade-offs in each situation.  In a situation where the population is relatively small and engaged, it may be reasonable to post an open-link survey on social media.  In other situations, it may be acceptable to do two interviews with service recipients rather than a representative sample survey.  No one solution will fit all situations, but be open to various non-optimal solutions that find the best compromise between quality and cost, especially when you have difficult-to-reach target populations.

Sometimes budget restrictions shrink or disappear when the client understands the value of more expensive options.  Don’t hesitate to communicate the benefits of things like greater coverage, higher response rates, participation from more stakeholder groups, expertise in data analysis, mapping, and so on.  Hopefully you won’t have to make tradeoffs because of financial resources, but in case you do, we hope these suggestions help you maximize the resources available to help a client serve their community better.

Rad Resource:

Conducting Quality Impact Evaluations Under Budget, Time and Data Constraints.  Independent Evaluation Group, World Bank

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Needs Assessment (NA) TIG Week with our colleagues in the Needs Assessment Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our NA TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on theaea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.



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