Look Before You Leap: Researching Your Community's Needs

In the third of his Faithworks series, Steve Chalke takes a look at the importance of honestly assessing the real needs of your local community before engaging your church in social action.

What’s the problem?

If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it! Or put another way – before your church goes steaming into setting up an elaborate scheme to house the homeless, develop an after school club or establish a family centre, it pays to stop long enough to ask if any of that is what the local community actually needs! It should go without saying that the people who know a community best are the people who are part of it. However, planners and politicians are only recently beginning to wake up to the fact that the active participation of local people in determining the future of their own communities is crucial. By virtue of who they are, local people have a depth of insight about, not to mention a vested interest in, the development of their community.

A local church may already consider itself to have a fair ‘intuitive’ understanding of its surrounding community – but it ’s never wise to be presumptuous. Nothing beats the foundation of good research. It will either serve to objectively confirm your present views and instincts or throw up some big surprises to correct them. Either way, you’ve made some real progress. Investment in quality community research is never a wasted exercise if you are serious about making a difference.

It will:

  • Deepen your understanding of your community
  • Ensure potential projects meet real needs
  • Maintain your focus on people before projects
  • Create a sense of local ownership and participation
  • Provide necessary information for potential sponsors
  • Avoid unnecessary duplication of pro- vision
  • Give local people a say in the future of their community

How to begin

Good research of the needs of your community will take time, energy and commitment as well as some financial investment. Your success will be dependent on putting together a core working group with the right mix of skills, which will include those of networking and presentation, as well as administration and the technical aspects of research evaluation. This group may be entirely ‘in house’, but you may choose to involve representatives from other churches and/or local voluntary organisations, which not only enables the effective sharing of resources but has the added benefit of beginning to build healthy partnerships and strong relationships in the community for the future.

Where to begin?

Having established your working group, their first task is to define the community that your research will cover.The most obvious way to do this is by selecting a specific geographical area; such as the parish your church is in, a particular housing estate, etc. But it’s also important to understand that different types of boundaries exist that may not be obvious or ‘official’. Sometimes recognised political boundaries between wards, local authorities or parishes have little significance for residents. To help your research you need to ascertain where the community perceives boundaries to exist. This may include railway lines, rivers, busy main roads or housing estates. Sometimes these coincide with political boundaries but more often not. Getting these boundaries wrong will blur and distort your findings.

Some years ago I served as the leader of an inner city church in south London. For years it had successfully served the community on both sides of the main road but due to increasing traffic problems the road was eventually widened and a huge dual carriageway and flyover were built. The result was the complete dissecting of the old community. Even though you can still see the houses on the other side of the road from the church building the new road severed all links with them and effectively created two separate, and now very different communities. Politics and local maps still tell you that everyone in the locality lives in the same London postal area, but spend a couple of days living there and you will soon discover it’s a very different story.

Once you have established the geographical community you want to audit, your task is then to ask yourselves whether the research you are interested in requires a general overview or a focus on a particular group defined by age, socio-economic differences, ethnic origin, gender, etc. Alternatively you could explore a key theme such as health, unemployment or education. But remember, for the research to be manageable the size of the area/sample chosen should reflect the available time and resources of your team.

Gathering information

The information you need to collect falls into two categories:

‘Hard’ data – Facts and statistics about the community such as population, housing, businesses, community organisations, recreational facilities and local services.

‘Soft’ data – Local views and opinions, attitudes, perspectives and feelings about the area.

The best studies will contain a mixture of both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ information, each informing the other. What people say when giving their opinion may well be very different from statistical information about how they live out their lives. But before embarking on a time-consuming round of surveying and consulting it’s well worth finding out what information already exists. You don’t want to waste your time simply duplicating it.

Good places to get existing information and statistics from include:

  • The Census – Available in your local library. This will give you detailed demographic information e.g. age groups, ethnic mix, employment details etc. The draw-back is that it is only published every 10 years, but the latest census information will be available late 2002/early 2003.
  • Indices of Deprivation – Measures of deprivation for every ward and local authority area in England. Available online from the Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions (DTLR) www.regeneration.dtlr.gov.uk/research
  • Local Authority and Statutory Agencies – A great deal of information on your community will be available from the various local statutory bodies, e.g. Social Services; and the Health Authority. Contact your local council and ask what studies have been carried out and how you can access the information.
  • The Police – For crime statistics, vandalism, crime prevention initiatives, community problems etc.
  • The Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership (Local Childcare Partnerships in Scotland) – For statistics relating to children in the area.
  • Local Council for Voluntary Service (CVS) – Ask what relevant reports they know about or have access to as well as if other community groups have carried out recent surveys of your area.
  • The Internet is also a useful source of information. Look at sites such as www.upmystreet.com. Other specialist groups you might find helpful include, housing associations, adult education, voluntary organisations, etc.

Consulting your community

Having gathered your ‘hard’ data ask yourself what other information you need to complete a balanced picture of your community. Facts and figures go some way towards describing local life, but to grasp a more detailed and accurate picture you will need to talk to the community and include their stories, opinions, view-points and outlooks. Before you begin this exercise you need to be honest about your purpose. Surveys which begin with “we want to find out your views about the area” but end with “do you have a personal relationship with God?” may justifiably create mistrust!!

How are we going to get the information?

There is a wide range of techniques and tools for community research.Here is a selection of some of the tried and tested options.

Questionnaires

Although one of the more obvious and traditional ways of collecting information, questionnaires should be used with caution. Careful planning is needed to ensure that information collected is clear, meaningful and suitable for analysis (multiple choice questions where interviewees answer by selecting A, B, C or D, for example, are by far the easiest to collate). Make sure people you interview know who you are, why you are asking them for information, what you will be doing with it and how and when they can access the results. It’s essential to run a ‘test’ on a small but representative group of people first to ensure that your questions are clear and that the answers can be accurately analysed and provide useful feedback. Your questionnaire needs to be simple, short and flow naturally and include monitoring information (i.e. age, sex etc). Any controversial or difficult questions should be left until the end.

Semi-structured interviews

Questionnaires are very structured and so the information they provide is limited. Semi-structured interviews are looser and therefore enable a much broader exploration of ideas, facts and opinions. They are more personal and have the advantage that you can probe by asking supplementary questions where appropriate. Be sure to focus on possible community solutions as well as the problems. Despite being time consuming they are, however, an excellent way to find out more about the life of the community from people like teachers, social workers, playgroup leaders, youth workers and other service providers, as well as residents.

Focus Groups

These are like semi-structured interviews but provide the dynamic created by the interaction of a small group brought together to discuss relevant issues. The ideal Focus Group consists of 8 to 12 people chosen from your target community.

The “Problem Wall”

During a recent government initiative, parents in local communities were invited to select and pin cards on to two specially designed consultation boards, one in the shape of a brick wall for problems and one in the shape of a fish for wishes. These were set up in public places such as leisure centres and shopping precincts. Some of the cards were pre-written with specific commonly felt problems, others with possible improvements that could be made. There were also blank cards for people to write on. Once someone had selected a card and pinned it to the appropriate board others who agreed could “vote” for it by sticking another pin into the card or choose to add cards of their own. At the end of the exercise all the pins were counted and the most popular ideas for improvements and most often experienced problems were easily identified.

Giving your research breadth and depth

While questionnaires and Problem Walls will give you ‘breadth’ of information, gathering the opinions of hundreds of people (a good sample would be 500 – 1000, but certainly no more), ‘depth’ will come from interviewing a smaller carefully selected sample, perhaps 20 to 50 people. Combining the breadth of questionnaires with the depth of information that can be gained from interviews and focus groups will always give you a better indication of the needs of your community, and so facilitate a more efficient response to them.

What are we going to do with the information?

By now you will have a lot of data about the life of your community. But in order to complete your analysis so that it provides you with meaningful information that will lead to future action, ask the following questions:

  • What is life like here?
  • What is life like here for ……?
  • Who benefits most from this area?
  • Who benefits least from this area?
  • What are people’s needs?
  • What are the opportunities?
  • Where are the gaps in provision?
  • Who wins?
  • Who loses?
  • Who decides?
  • What ideas/suggestions for solutions have been put forward so far?

Where now?

Write up your report in a clear, accessible and imaginative way. Use visuals, maps, diagrams, etc, so that the information you have gained will be easily understood. Don’t let your work gather dust and stagnate. Think about who would benefit from reading it. Remember that it is not an end in itself but a vital tool in the regenerative process of your community. As such it should form the basis of an ongoing dialogue about your community and serve as a valuable contribution to your Local Strategic Partnership (see last months Christianity+Renewal magazine or go to www.faithworkscampaign.org) helping to bring about effective local development and delivery of your church’s God-given mission to serve at the hub of your community. For more information about issues highlighted in this article, contact Faithworks on 0207 450 9050 or visit our website at www.faithworkscampaign.org



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