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Determining educational content

Researching educational needs

  • See sample tools under Attachments, below.

There are numerous methods for assessing educational needs, from mail or telephone surveys and focus groups to more elaborate research studies. Which type to use will depend on the type and scope of the project for which the study is being conducted, as well as the time frame during which the results will be applied (A one-time workshop? A full-year program? A three-year strategic plan?).

One thing all good needs assessments have in common is that data are always gathered directly from the target audience; i.e., the group to whom the program will be promoted. This may include the entire chapter, a random or selected sample, or a targeted segment. This means that data from another chapter's survey, or from a consultant's client list, cannot be validly applied to your chapter's situation. This also applies to that really great survey conducted five years ago...the chapter has evolved, and so have its members!

It is also tempting to rely on responses to the "suggested future programs" section of participant evaluation forms from previous events. However, while it can provide useful anecdotal input, this method is not truly a needs assessment because it rarely reaches an appropriate sample of the target audience. In fact, folks who seldom or never attend meetings (and these are the ones you're trying to attract) will not be able to tell you what would attract them!

Some good, simple methods that work well are:

  • The random-sample survey: This is the old stand-by for chapters and still your best bet for determining which topics, teaching formats, venues, and time frames your members prefer. Correctly done, data from an annual or bi-annual member survey can help to shape an entire year's programming, complete with monthly meetings, special workshops and even a multi-track conference. A well-constructed survey can give detailed insight into members' on-the-job needs, career plans, and concerns for the future. The Online Guide contains a customizable Educational Needs Assessment Tool.
  • Focus groups: A focus group can be described as a very small survey sample, who meets as a group rather than responding individually. The feedback sought from them will be similar to a regular survey, elicited through open-ended questions: What are their jobs like? What are they missing in terms of information or skills? Where do they see fundraising going; where do they see themselves going, and what kind of help do they need getting there? Note that a focus group is NOT a program planning session! Participants should represent a "slice" of the target audience as a whole, with similar proportions of practice levels, job environments, and demographics. Later, the education committee will incorporate their feedback into planning, along with any other needs assessment data. 
  • Open-ended questionnaires: These can be used either alone or in conjunction with a focus group or survey. They are particularly useful in telephone surveys, where respondents can be more personally engaged than with a written one. Open-ended questions work well when the seeking input on attitudes, or trying to solve a specific problem such as an unexplained drop-off in meeting attendance.
  • Pre-testing and skills testing: This type of needs assessment is usually performed to directly gauge the level of technical expertise in a specific topic or skill among members of a target audience. For instance, when switching to new software an office manager may want to assess staff skills to determine training needs. 
  • Test domains for the CFRE and ACFRE: Both certification programs publish candidate guidelines, with outlines of the content areas (domains) covered by their respective examinations. The outlines include the proportionate weight given to areas tested. Together with the study bibliographies provided in the guidelines, the outlines offer a framework for assessing the needs of potential examinees. Download these under Attachments, below.
  • In addition to its test outline, the ACFRE Board has published guidelines for the identification of programs that meet the definition of advanced fundraising education in the application¡¦s leadership, management, and ethics categories. Chapters are encouraged to refer to this document when developing programs targeted to advanced professionals. These are also attached below.


CFRE Examination Outline — PDF Format, 77717KB

ACFRE Examination Outline — PDF Format, 115660KB

Developing Courses for the ACFRE — PDF Format, 105700KB

ACFRE Session Approval Form — PDF Format, 141633KB

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