Action Guide > Preparation

What happens before the service project?

Designing an effective service experience requires that you first determine
what is already taking place in your community and who is already doing the
work. It is essential to find out this information so that you can determine if
you can partner with another group or if you need to start from scratch. There
is no need to reinvent the wheel. You should customize your service based on
the needs of the community and the resources of your group.

Relationships are at the heart of social justice work – whether it takes the form
of a community service outing, tabling on a college campus, an advocacy campaign, networking, raising awareness, or planning an overseas service trip. The issue that you choose will dictate to whom you might reach out as potential partners. It is important to work with community partners, both for the reason stated above – so that your work is not redundant – but even more critically, to avoid a common problem in volunteer work – paternalism. The goal in an ideal service project is to partner with the community to find a project that is beneficial to both sides and to work on it together.

Create a list of a dozen possible partners for your service project. In reaching out to each, it is important to assess whether you and the potential partner see both the problem and the solution in the same way. If the perspectives are different, you will need to negotiate and possibly compromise. In such situations your group must determine if the benefits of the partnership are valuable enough to justify the compromises to be made. When discussing your chosen issue(s) with partners, determine goals, objectives, what you can gain from the partnership, what you will give to the partnership, and how you can create change by working together. The best kind of partnerships are those where both parties stand to benefit or see their interests advanced (a win-win)

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Why conduct a community needs assessment?

Before you begin implementing a program of change, you should assess the needs of the people who are most affected by the problem that you will be trying to address, and who will, hopefully, most benefit from the change you are trying to effect. All social justice initiatives should incorporate the voice and needs of the community which it aims to serve. Too many times, volunteers will organize projects that address perceived needs, rather than true needs.

Those perceptions can be fed by stereotypes about the population the volunteers are trying to help as well as misunderstandings based on a lack of understanding of the situation on the ground. You should start by focusing on a specific community and allow appropriate projects to emerge from conversations with area residents. Communication with the individuals who are directly experiencing the problem will enable the population being served to have the primary say as to what help they would like, will avoid duplicating other efforts that are already in place, and will allow those who are serving to have maximum impact.

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When do you need to conduct a community needs assessment?

Identifying resources and needs should be done on an ongoing basis throughout your initiative:

  • Prior to planning the initiative
  • During implementation of the initiative
  • On an ongoing basis after completion of the initiative

There are many ways to identify local needs and resources. Often, it is most
effective to establish a close partnership with a local organization that has
experience working in the community. You can rely on such a partner to
provide you with all of the relevant information pertaining to the community’s
needs, challenges, hopes, and plans. Essentially, you will be outsourcing — but
not ignoring – this important task to a reliable partner.

In other instances it may be more appropriate, even necessary, for you to gather information about a community on your own. You can interview key people (e.g. elected officials, leaders of faith communities, longtime residents, etc.), hold community meetings or conduct focus group sessions. You should also be sure to read or research local publications (e.g. local newspapers, periodicals or newsletters of local organizations).

The most important part of identifying local needs and resources is listening to the insights of group members, community residents, leaders and others, while incorporating community data and history into the analysis. Choose an issue area that you are interested in, then seek out key people or organizations involved in that area and arrange to have informational meetings. As you begin to learn more about problems that the community faces, you should be thinking about possible root-causes of these problems. For example, if you want to work on helping local elementary students improve their performance in school, you might establish a tutoring program. You might also work on increasing the availability of low-cost, nutritious food, since lack of nutrition affects academic performance. A tutoring program might directly address the problem of academic performance, but if the root-cause of the problem is hunger, it will have limited impact. As most issues have multiple root-causes, effective initiatives take the root-causes into account.

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Hillel

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