Impact Measurement Guide Beta

Needs assessment

In order to be effective, your program must be responsive to the needs of the community it aims to serve. Seeking out perspectives from the communities where the program will operate will enable you to make a thoughtful diagnosis of the problem your program aims to solve. This is where a needs assessment comes in – it helps you understand the problems that your target population faces and the surrounding economic, political, and social context.


In an evidence review, you go through existing research to learn more about your program context. A needs assessment can include an evidence review, but you would usually also collect original data.

You would likely conduct an evidence review over a needs assessment if the information about the context surrounding your target population is well-documented – but in most cases, you’ll need to conduct fieldwork to make sure you have recent, local data about the needs of your target population.


Suppose you plan to boost girls’ attendance by providing free menstrual hygiene management products in school. You first conduct a needs assessment, and learn from the students and their families that girls already have access to menstrual hygiene management products. However, the lack of bins in school bathrooms limit the students’ ability to dispose of used products discreetly, which is why girls prefer not to attend school when they are menstruating. Based on this evidence, you shift focus from providing menstrual hygiene management products to providing bins in all bathrooms.

Which questions can a needs assessment answer?

A needs assessment can help you decide which problems to address, diagnose common causes of those problems, and identify programs that are likely to solve them. For example, you may observe that attendance in primary schools is low in a particular district. A needs assessment might reveal that parents do not believe there are high returns from sending their children to school regularly, and that the perceived benefits for boys are higher than those for girls. Based on this needs assessment, you develop a program to educate parents about the benefits of schooling, particularly for girls.

A needs assessment can reveal whether you should fundamentally alter or terminate the program. Some key considerations are:

  • The problem your program is trying to address does not exist. For example, implementing a program to build awareness of HIV in a context where knowledge of HIV is already high, and HIV prevalence is low. 
  • Your program does not address the root of the problem you are trying to solve. For example, providing incentives for girls to attend school if there is no school within reasonable walking distance and no cost-effective means of transportation.
  • The community’s needs are already being served better by someone else. For example, you plan to sell livestock vaccines to smallholder farmers, but farmers can already get vaccines for free from the government.

Conducting a needs assessment when your program is already up and running can help you assess whether you are reaching the people you need to. Continuing from a previous example on parental perceptions affecting school attendance, let’s say you observe after a couple years that attendance in early grades has improved dramatically, but many older children are dropping out between primary and secondary school. You realize that the needs of your target population have shifted, and shift the focus your program to retention and remedial education, rather than convincing parents to send their children to school in the first place.

Next steps - Conducting a needs assessment

Needs assessments usually involve analyzing secondary data from sources such as recent nationally representative or local surveys, conducting new household surveys, interviewing key stakeholders, conducting focus groups, or some combination of all of these activities.

Should you do the needs assessment yourself or hire an expert?

Your organization may have the capacity to do a needs assessment on its own- most organizations can conduct interviews and focus group discussions on their own. Activities such as analyzing survey data would require a stronger technical background. You may want to hire an external party if you do not have the expertise or available capacity to conduct household surveys and analyze data.

How to conduct your needs assessment

Our step-by-step instructions and template will help you design and execute a needs assessment


Your target population is the community your program aims to serve. It’s helpful to be as specific as possible, and identify whether you are targeting certain demographics. For example, your program may broadly set out to support farmers, but you may be particularly interested in supporting women farmers who do not own land.

Create a list with the questions you don’t know the answers to. To get you started, here are some questions to consider:

a. Which communities do you plan to serve?

b. What are the major problems they face?

c. How much of a burden do these problems pose?

d. What are some potential causes for these problems?

e. Is anyone else trying to solve these problems? What are they doing, where do they operate, and how successful has their approach been?

Create a list of assumptions your theory of change makes. For example, are you making assumptions about your target population’s availability at certain times? Their location? Their access to transportation? Whether they possess certain assets (such as a cell phone on which to receive calls)?

Log in to access your theory of change. Add any untested assumptions about your target population to your list of questions.

For example, say your program relies on cell phone access. 100% of your target population may not have access to cell phones – so what is the minimum number of people who must have cell phones in order for your program to work? Can your program work with 75% mobile phone penetration? 50%? 

Creating these thresholds upfront gives you a framework you can use to quickly take action based on your results. It also gives your team time to think through potential program redesigns and contingency plans.

Needs assessments can use quantitative data (anything that can be represented as a number) or qualitative data (harder-to-summarize observations and conversations).  Choose metrics that meaningfully capture the things you care about.

You can use the indicator selection guide to shortlist metrics!

To do a needs assessment, you will need to review secondary sources and/or speak to community members. Here are some suggestions:

 – Reviewing secondary sources – Look for academic papers, survey data, and policy reports. Find other organizations involved in this issue or this community – it may be useful to go through their website and speak to their team. Finally, look through your program archives and speak to the team members who are on-site– your program’s data and reports can be very valuable!

 For more detailed guidance, have a look at the evidence review step-by-step instructions.

 – Conversations with community members– Speaking to community members is critical for making sure you have recent, local, and reliable data. Informal conversations are a useful starting point, but you will likely need to collect data in a more systematic way, such as through surveys, focus group discussions, and in-depth interviews.

 When choosing which community members to speak to, make sure to include a diversity of perspectives so you can develop a more holistic understanding of the context.

Quantitative data analysis for a needs assessment usually involves calculating summary statistics and comparing them to your assumptions: What percent of the population is affected by this issue? What are the top reasons people give for this issue? This type of analysis can usually be done in Excel or Google Sheets, or through more sophisticated statistical or data visualization software.

Analyzing qualitative data can be more time-consuming and can take a range of approaches.

Use this new information to refine your program so it is more responsive to what the community needs. Depending on what you find, you may decide to tweak your program slightly, redesign large parts of it, or even pivot towards addressing a different problem than the one you originally set out to solve. Any changes should be reflected in your theory of change.


Not sure where to go from here? 
Use our guide to frame a question and match it to the right method.

Needs assessment case study

How a needs assessment enabled a nonprofit in Senegal to validate that they were addressing an important problem

Types of impact evaluations

Impact evaluations compare the people who receive your program to a similar group of people who did not receive your program. Based on how this similar group is chosen, impact evaluations can be randomized controlled trials or quasi-experimental.

A randomized controlled trial (RCT) is considered the gold standard of impact evaluation. In an RCT, the program is randomly assigned among a target population. Those who receive the program are called the treatment group; those who do not receive the program are called the control group. We consider the outcomes from the control group to represent what would have happened to the treatment group in the absence of the program. By comparing outcomes among those who receive the program (the treatment group) to those who don’t (the control group), we can rigorously estimate the impact of the program. The random assignment of the program to the treatment and control group provides the rigor, as it ensures that the selection of people is not based on biased criteria that could affect the results.

When a randomized design is not feasible, there are other, “quasi-experimental,” ways of constructing a valid comparison group. 

  • In a matched design we would match individuals who receive the program to individuals who don’t receive the program based on some observable characteristics (such as age, gender, number of years of schooling, etc.), and compare outcomes across these groups. 
  • Another common technique is regression discontinuity design, in which you create a cutoff based on which individuals are eligible to receive the program, and then compare outcomes from groups just below and just above the cutoff to estimate impact. 

Matched designs and regression discontinuity designs are just two of many quasi-experimental techniques. J-PAL provides an overview of common methods of conducting an impact evaluation. All such methods seek to identify what would have happened to your target population if they had never received the program, and their success relies on the strength of the assumptions they make about whether the comparison group is a credible stand-in for your program’s target population. 

Recommendation: Theory of Change

A theory of change is a narrative about how and why a program will lead to social impact. Every development program rests on a theory of change – it’s a crucial first step that helps you remain focused on impact and plan your program better.

You can use to create your Theory of Change.

Recommendation: Needs assessment

A needs assessment describes the context in which your program will operate (or is already operating). It can help you understand the scope and urgency of the problems you identified in the theory of change. It can also help you identify the specific communities that can benefit from your program and how you can reach them.

Once you’re satisfied that your program can be implemented as expected:

Your program's theory of change

You have a written plan for how your program will improve lives – great! Make sure to refer to it as you explore the different sections in the Impact Measurement Guide, as it is the foundation for any other method you’ll use.

Recommendation: Process Evaluation

A process evaluation can tell you whether your program is being implemented as expected, and if assumptions in your theory of change hold. It is an in-depth, one-time exercise that can help identify gaps in your program.

Once you are satisfied that your program can be implemented as expected:

Recommendation: Evidence Review

An evidence review summarizes findings from research related to your program. It can help you make informed decisions about what’s likely to work in your context, and can provide ideas for program features.

Once you are satisfied with your evidence review:

Recommendation: Monitoring

A monitoring system provides continuous real-time information about how your program is being implemented and how you’re progressing toward your goals. Once you set up a monitoring system, you would receive regular information on program implementation to track how your program is performing on specific indicators.

Once you are satisfied with your monitoring system:

Recommendation: Monitoring

A monitoring system provides continuous real-time information about how your program is being implemented and how you’re progressing toward your goals. Once you set up a monitoring system, you would receive regular information on program implementation to track how your program is performing on specific indicators.

Once you are satisfied with your monitoring system:

How to compile evidence, method 2

You’re on this page because you want to search for evidence relevant to your program.

Here are some academic sources where you can search for relevant research:

  • Google Scholar is a search engine for academic papers – enter the keywords relevant to your program, and you’ll find useful papers in the top links
  • Once you identify some useful papers, you can consult their literature review and bibliography sections to find other papers that might be relevant
  • Speaking to a sector expert can guide you to useful literature

 However, don’t include only academic studies in your review! You should also consult:

  • Policy reports
  • Websites of organizations involved in this issue, such as think tanks, NGOs, or the World Bank
  • Public datasets
  • Your program archives – data and reports from earlier iterations of the program can be very valuable!

 The free Zotero plug-in provides an easy way to save, organize, and format citations collected during internet research. Note that Zotero can help you start your annotated bibliography, but it is not a substitute since it does not include any summary or interpretation of each study’s findings.

How to compile evidence, method 1

Start with the 3ie Development Evidence Portal, which has compiled over 3,700 evaluations and over 700 systematic evidence reviews. Steps 2-7 of this example are specific to locating evidence on the 3ie website, but you can also consider looking for a review by J-PAL or Campbell Collaborations or the Cochrane.

For example, suppose your goal is to increase immunization rates in India. Type “immunization vaccination” or other related terms into the search box, and click the magnification lens to search.

The search results include individual studies, which are usually about a single program in a single location, as well as “systematic reviews”, which is what we are looking for because they are more comprehensive. To show only the systematic reviews, on the left of the screen under Filter Results, click on PRODUCTS and check the Systematic Reviews box. We’re now left with 17 evidence reviews related to immunization.

Now you might want to further narrow your search by region or country. In our example, suppose we want to see only those evidence reviews that contain at least one study from India. Click on COUNTRY and scroll down to click on India.

There are still 9 evidence reviews! Now read the titles of each review and start going through the ones that seem applicable to you.

  • Note that they are sorted with the most recent first, which is helpful as newer reviews tend to be more comprehensive.
  • 3ie has made the hardest part – assessing how strong the evidence is – easy for us. They use a 3-star scale to indicate the level of confidence in the systematic review.
  • In this example, the most recent review, Interventions For Improving Coverage Of Childhood Immunisation In Low- And Middle-Income Countries, is also the only one rated 3 stars (high quality). Click on its title.

The next page gives you an overview of the study. If it is “Open access”, this means you can read it for free – click “Go to source” below the star rating. If it isn’t open access, you can try some of the strategies in Step 9 to see if you can find the study for free elsewhere.

Clicking on “Go to source” opens a new tab with a PDF of the article. Don’t be intimidated by the length and technical terminology, and start with the summary – these articles usually include an “abstract” and sometimes a “plain language summary” and/or “summary of findings”.

The summary will likely be useful but too vague – dig into the review and look for details about which programs were tried and where, and how well they worked.

  • Keep track of which programs and studies seem particularly relevant, so that you can look them up later.
  • Consider the conclusions of the authors of the systematic review – are there trends that emerge across countries and contexts that are relevant for you? Overall, what are the main lessons from this review that you take away?
  • Be sure to read with a skeptical mindset – just because something worked in Japan doesn’t mean it will work in India – nor does it mean it won’t. And just because something worked in India before doesn’t mean it will continue to work – context is more complicated than country! Think about the evidence you find as well-documented ideas, but not the last word.
  • You can skip the parts about the methodology followed by the authors of the systematic review.
  • If the systematic review was helpful, add it to the bibliography.
  • Copy the citation from the references section and paste it into a search engine.
  • Usually, the first result will be the full paper on a journal’s website. If it is open access, you can read it directly. A lot of academic literature is not open access, unfortunately. Here are some tricks you can try if the article is not available:

a) Go back to your search and see if you can find a PDF posted on one of the authors’ websites – authors often share “working papers”, which might differ only slightly from the final paper, for free on their site.

b) Email the paper’s authors if you can’t find it elsewhere – many researchers are happy to share a copy with people looking to learn from their experience.

  • Read the paper. You probably don’t need to read all of it – the abstract, introduction, a description of the program, the results, and the conclusion are probably enough, whereas sections on technical methods can be skipped. This paper may also include references to other literature that could be relevant to your program. Keep track of these references so you can look into them later.
  • Add the paper to the annotated bibliography if it seems relevant.

For each piece of evidence that you find, there should be a clear justification for including it in the bibliography, such as: it is a landmark study in the topic (i.e. it has a large number of citations or is cited by many other studies in your review), it is relevant to specific aspects of this evaluation (such as measuring similar outcomes, being conducted in a similar context, or evaluating a similar intervention), etc. However, there are no absolute standards for inclusion, and since not all studies will be used in writing up the review, it is better to err on the side of including a study in the annotated bibliography.

Repeat step 9 for every paper from the systematic review that you found relevant!

  • If an organization ran the program that was evaluated, you might be able to find information on the organization’s website. If not, try emailing the organization.
  • Sometimes people share program details elsewhere – blogs, policy briefs, videos, etc. Try searching more about the program and you might find something.
  • In our example, we found a review from 2016, which is quite recent. However, keep in mind it can take 1-2 years to write and publish a review – and since the review is citing only published literature, the cited articles would be a year or two old as well. This means that it is likely that this review is missing anything done since 2014 or 2013, and hopefully the world has learned a lot about how to address your problem since then. While this shortcut helped you find relevant evidence, you might still want to use Method 2 so that you can see what has been learned since 2014.


  • This method used only academic sources. Non-academic sources are also a very useful source of information, and you should look into them. In Method 2, we have included a list of non-academic sources to consult.

Process evaluation vs monitoring: Which one do you need?

Process evaluations and monitoring both provide information on how your program is running and whether it is meeting expectations. The key difference is that process evaluations are a one-off activity, while monitoring is ongoing. That means that process evaluations are often more intensive exercises to collect more data and dive deeper into the theory of change. In contrast, ongoing monitoring must not overburden program staff and often tracks just a few high-priority indicators that are critical to program success.  

Consider the following questions to help you decide between conducting a process evaluation and building a monitoring system:  

1.     Are you interested in identifying specific problems or general problems? 

Process evaluations typically identify general or systemic problems along the theory of change, whereas monitoring typically identifies specific entities (e.g. service providers or locations)that need more attention.    

2.     Are you looking to hold program staff accountable?   

Both process evaluations and monitoring are implemented for learning – is our program being implemented as planned? If not, at which steps is it breaking down? However, if you are seeking an accountability system, monitoring is better-suited as it is continuous, whereas a process evaluation is a one-time exercise.  

3.     Do you need ongoing data on how your program is performing?  

A process evaluation typically offers a snapshot in time, whereas monitoring involves ongoing data collection and analysis for the entire duration of the program. For example, a process evaluation may do in-depth interviews with program participants on their experiences, whereas a monitoring system might collect data on just a few questions related to beneficiary satisfaction.  

4.     Do you need comprehensive data?

A process evaluation is typically based on a sample, while monitoring is usually comprehensive. For example, in a teacher training program, you would monitor the training of all teachers (because it is useful to know exactly which teachers did not attend the training), whereas in a process evaluation, you would interview a subset of teachers to understand the reasons why they did not attend the training.