Community assessment: still the best starting point for a meaningful social investment strategy

We live in an era where vast amounts of detailed information are at our fingertips. Given this, one might question the need to carry out a community assessment before designing a social investment strategy. These assessments play an integral role in developing high-quality strategies aimed at maximising social impact and are a critical part of the process.

Community assessments refer to state, tribal, local or territorial assessments that identify crucial needs and issues through systematic, comprehensive data collection and analysis. They allow social investors to learn more about a community and gain hands-on, grassroots insight that cannot be captured through census data or generic data collection methods. While census data can provide information regarding unemployment, access to essential government services, economic sectors, and the levels of education in a community, it can never provide a meaningful picture of how community members view themselves, their families and community – or the vision and hope they hold for the future. This is why we as Tshikululu make a point of interacting with local community members face-to-face: working to discover hidden talents and assets that can be leveraged to drive social change, and gain local-buy in and support of strategies developed by potential social investors in an area.

In a recent community assessment Tshikululu conducted, we engaged with two district municipalities in the Eastern Cape and Northern Cape. Community members highlighted the root causes of their challenges and offered solutions to solve them. At the same time, due to a lack of agency and means to make their voices heard, we also found a sense of hopelessness and despair. Community members highlighted how they lacked resources to ensure young people could be engaged and active. The need for youth centres and well-maintained sports facilities was echoed across the two geographies and small, medium and micro-enterprises (SMMEs) expressed the need for better access to markets, finance, and specialised education and training.

Unemployment was another recurring problem in the isolated and remote towns we visited. When we started unpacking this a more significant challenge emerged as to the contributing factors. Municipalities had not established local economic development strategies that spoke to the comparative advantages of their respective towns. As such, they were unable to draw upon public-private partnerships to leverage opportunities. Because these strategies were not clearly articulated, divergent approaches started to mount between community members, the private sector and local government officials.  This is where a well-researched and strategic social investment strategy – that starts with an in-depth assessment – can make all the difference.

Taking a “bottom-up assessment approach” that involves community members in identifying strengths, weaknesses and challenges and the means to solve them fosters agency, social cohesion and decision-making transparency across stakeholders. It is the first step in having community members identify critical issues while allowing social investors the ability to facilitate development. Moreover, assessments can uncover existing programmes and projects already underway, thus preventing duplication (an on-going development scourge).

In too many development interventions, social investors often think they know “what is best for the community” based on flimsy or outdated (or no) evidence. However, through thoughtful, structured community assessments, we can bring the root causes of societal problems to light. These assessments draw social investors closer to the community they are hoping to support, bridging what can sometimes be a big gap between “givers” and “beneficiaries” (to use some of the problematic language one finds in the development space). If utilised properly, assessment findings can accurately present the proverbial “before picture” for social investors – ensuring they are then able to implement substantive interventions that drive lasting social impact in the community.