Research as a Tool for Planning and Partnership

7/11/17 by Anna Granias

Most researchers and evaluators do the work they do hoping it will be used to improve the lives of others and not end up sitting on a shelf. So I was thrilled when Community Action Partnership of Hennepin County (CAP-HC) said they wanted to host a series of community forums to share results of the recent community needs assessment they contracted Wilder Research to conduct.

Needs assessment will inform work in expanded service area

At the direction of Governor Dayton, Community Action Partnership of Hennepin County (CAP-HC) grew out of the organization formerly known as Community Action Partnership of Suburban Hennepin County (CAPSH) to serve Minneapolis in addition to suburban Hennepin County.

Community Action Partnership agencies are federally mandated to conduct a community needs assessment every three years, but CAP-HC conducted theirs early to make research-informed decisions about where to focus their resources, particularly to understand community needs given their transition into Minneapolis.

In June, CAP-HC hosted four community forums where they shared findings from Wilder Research’s 2016 community needs assessment of Hennepin County. They also hoped to learn about the organizations and agencies already providing needed services and supports to underserved communities in Hennepin County. Attendees were encouraged to engage in conversations in small groups about the research findings and how they might collaborate to address the greatest needs of the low-income population.

At each forum, Executive Director Scott Zemke explained to attendees, “The community needs assessment is only a starting place in our efforts to gain an understanding of where our services best fit in the county and how we might change our services to address gaps in the area. We are hosting these community forums because we want to make sure we are providing services that are relevant to this community and that complement the great work that is already happening.” CAP-HC viewed these community forums as an opportunity to connect with potential partners and to contribute to efforts already underway to provide a less complex and more collaborative service system for low-income residents in the county.

Identifying needs and effectively collaborating

We know at Wilder Research that using data to make positive changes in people’s lives is what transforms a community needs assessment from something that admires the problem into something that plays a key role in developing solutions. Wilder Research is excited to see CAP-HC using the data collected in this needs assessment for strategic planning and targeted programming and to connect with other service providers in the county. The summary report and data may also be useful, not only to them, but also their peers to:

  1. Plan and target programs and services
  2. Inform stakeholders of the needs in their service area
  3. Help leaders better understand the community
  4. Identify new partnership opportunities

Survey, interviews, and data inform next steps

For the needs assessment, Wilder Research surveyed current CAP-HC program participants and did outreach to include Minneapolis residents. We added context by providing secondary data about the low-income population in Hennepin County and the organizations that serve them, conducting interviews with representatives from those organizations, and reviewing relevant studies and existing data sources.

Through the survey, CAP-HC clients identified their greatest needs as financial or economic assistance, housing, transportation, health care or medical assistance, food, and employment. These needs were similar to those prioritized by representatives from organizations serving Hennepin County residents.

Challenges faced by service providers to meet the greatest needs

Findings from interviews with service providers identified the main barriers low-income individuals face in accessing products and services. The most frequently mentioned included limited transportation and difficulty navigating a complex social service system that often lacks coordination. According to providers, immigrants, refugees, and people experiencing mental illness or trauma encounter unique challenges navigating the system, making it difficult to access services. Service providers also talked about their organization’s challenges, including inadequate funding, competition for scarce resources, effective collaboration, and flexibility and adaptability to address the changing needs of the low-income population, including the specific needs of immigrants, refugees, and older adults.

In connecting with service providers, CAP-HC has taken the first step to using the data to improve services for individuals. I look forward to watching how they use these findings to inform their work to serve Hennepin County residents.

Read the summary report and data book.