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No More Needs Assessments

How to move away from the deficit default and toward an approach that is more fair, honors nonprofits’ strengths and agency, and shares power with them.

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Raise your hand if you’ve received or (guilty!) sent something resembling this email:

Dear Valued Grantee,

We hope you are well! As we at the Foundation have talked amongst ourselves, we’ve realized our grantees are weak and could use more support in fundraising and financial management. As a result, we have paid an enormous amount of money to a consulting group to do a deep needs assessment of each of you to determine where you need the most help. This is HIGHLY ENCOURAGED for you to participate – we want to make sure we really know your weaknesses and then give you the capacity building training we determine you need to get better. Consultant Q will follow up on this email to schedule some time, oh and there’ll be a survey and also some follow-up conversations and we’re not paying you for this.

Cheers! Walter

Okay, I may have taken some editorial liberty, but you get the gist. How does it make you feel to read that? What this brings up for me – beside owning I’ve done this and need to do better – are a couple of things:

  1. Good intent doesn’t excuse negative impact: The intent here is well-meaning: “we want to support our grantees!” But the impact of this is harmful: the grantee doesn’t have say in the matter, they just need to do this long process, without just compensation, at the funder’s whim. It reinforces the notion nonprofits have to do whatever the funder says in order to secure funds.
  2. Deficit mindset: Just the term “needs assessment” should go the way of the dodo (i.e., extinct). It centers what is perceived to be “wrong” and reinforces a “we are right, you need help” power dynamic. We’re working together toward transformational systems change, folks – each of us has strength and beauty and specific capacities unique to us and our community to bring to this fight. Let’s name that and center that instead of “needs.”
  3. No voice or choice: Did you notice the first sentence – “we realized our grantees are weak in fundraising”? So often, we think we know grantees, nonprofits, or communities better than they know themselves. That’s just not the case. We’ve seen in our work over and over that when you share power with nonprofits and communities, “the answer is in the room” – they know what it will really take to get to the change they seek. And it’s often very different than what the funder or consultants think.

When done right, diagnostic surveys can be helpful tools. They can help you understand the context in which nonprofits are working, their strengths, the challenges they’re grappling with, and themes across grantees. And they can provide nonprofits with more data points to have conversations in their teams about what capacity areas they think are worth investing their time and energy in. In our recent field guide Making Capacity Building More Equitable, we’ve offered some guidance on how to move away from a deficit default and toward an approach that is more fair, honors nonprofits’ strengths and agency, and shares power with them. We offer these learnings as fellow learners – we’ve messed up, and we commit to doing better alongside you:

  1. Provide choices: As we have developed capacity indicator and other diagnostic surveys, we’ve learned it’s critical to share survey results and data directly with the coalitions or grantees, then let them decide what to do with it. They could say, “we’re good, these results seem to indicate we’re in a good place,” or “we’re going to double down on what we’re good at,” or “yeah, we want to focus on that one gap uplifted by the data.” We then encourage funders to just give unrestricted funds directly to these groups for them to decide what to work on and who to work with – or not work with. There is support and connections we can provide – a list of racial equity providers they may not be connected to, as an example – but then they have the power and the decision.
  2. Take an asset-based approach – which means, no more “needs assessments”: It’s not just a language shift, although that is important as well. It’s a shift in mindset and how we approach those we’re partnering with. It’s seeing the fullness and wholeness of their assets, strengths, social capital, community trust, racial equity competency – all of it – and taking the approach of “how do we work together to double down on this strength our community wants?” This also means expanding the capacity areas you are looking at, too – not just traditional financial management, fundraising, board management, etc., but also racial equity capacity, staff wellness and self-care, community trust, representation, and power sharing. There are skills and strengths we can all learn from, spread, and grow together – if we choose to look for them instead of focusing on the need, deficit, or weakness.

If you want to talk more about capacity assessments or equitable approaches to capacity building, reach out to Walter Howell at

Want some real-world examples?

Join our webinar Wednesday, November 3rd from 2-3 pm Eastern (11-12 am Pacific). This session will offer frameworks and guidance on how capacity building can be more equitable and share learnings from two funders — Caroline Altman-Smith of the Kresge Foundation and Jennifer Wei of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation — who have reconsidered their assumptions and approaches.


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