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  • Help and support

Ways of defining need

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Need is a complex issue that can be broadly categorised by the following types:1

  • Material need - to be adequately nourished, have somewhere to live, be warm, have a decent home, adequate transport, adequate income, employment, basic possessions and activities, basic skills and qualifications.
  • Psychological need - mental health, self-esteem, competence, autonomy, good quality relationships, security.

One approach to defining need is to view those in need as lacking particular resources or facing certain barriers, in accessing the support, information or care they need.2

For instance individuals or groups may have needs because they cannot readily access or negotiate services (perhaps due to a lack of language or communication skills) or because they do not live close to the services they need or lack transport. People may have needs because of barriers to accessing help or because of cultural barriers, discrimination, or a lack of trust in statutory organisations.


For example, consider a target group of women experiencing domestic abuse. The main problem identified is the continued domestic abuse experienced by women in the area. The underlying reasons for this are that the women lack personal and financial autonomy, have low self-esteem and do not see any alternative to their current circumstances. The needs to be addressed by the project are for a greater ability to make choices, the availability of alternative housing options for the women and their children, the development of confidence and self-esteem and for access to money and employment advice.


Some groups have needs that are more hidden than others. For example, many people with a learning disability who have high support needs also have needs related to connected problems, such as poverty, unemployment, social isolation and discrimination.

Those most in need include people with multiple, severe needs or those who have fallen through the net of support systems such as statutory services, family, or voluntary and community or private sectors.

It may be appropriate for a project to address several needs or to focus on one or two, depending on the organisation's size or specialist area.

Be as realistic and specific as possible about the needs you are addressing. There may be many unmet needs, so focus on the main need(s) you have identified and draw up a clear statement. This helps to ensure that other people involved in your project share an understanding, but also that we and other funders understand what you are trying to do. You may not be entirely sure or clear at the start, but working through this guidance may help you.

A project that chooses to address only one or two needs, but that can demonstrate a good understanding of what those needs are and why they exist, stands a better chance of achieving its outcomes than a project that aims to address a range of needs but offers little analysis about why.


Evidence: so how do you know?

How do you know the unmet need exists and why? You will have to provide some recent and relevant evidence. This can come from a combination of sources, such as:

  • asking people with experience of the need
  • your own experience, or what you have seen
  • research into the scale of the need
  • local statistics about the population in the area or levels of deprivation (such as from the census or other more recent surveys) or other statistics.
  • local authority initiatives or partnership strategies between statutory and voluntary sector services that are in place because the need is already well known and evidenced.

Some groups who are in most need do not engage with services and so current or recent evidence about their needs may be harder to access.

In general, the time you spend researching need will be in proportion to the size of your project. For example, larger projects will need to demonstrate how their project fits with local, regional or national strategies and the evidence underpinning them.

If you need further help look at the Help Defining Need page

1Adapted from Sinking & Swimming: Understanding Britain's Unmet Needs. Young Foundation 2010

2Adapted from Deep and persistent exclusion: interrogating the idea of the "bottom 2.5%" Young Foundation 2008

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