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Learn how to analyze community problems to better understand root causes and plan effective interventions.


Communities have problems, just like people

Problems are part of life. We all deal with individual problems, families have family issues, and communities have community problems. Communities must come together to solve their problems, just like families.

When communities try to solve problems, they start just like individuals do. They must reflect and analyze the issue to help come to a solution. But, before discussing solutions, problems must be identified.

So, after discussing a little bit about what problems look like, this section will explain what analyzing community problems is about, why it can be helpful, and then how to do it.

What is a community problem?

Problems can arise in any part of a community and come from any aspect of community life. There's a long list of nominees, and you probably know some of the main contenders. Can you name the leading problems in your community? Chances are you can at least start the list.

Below are examples of community problems:

Example Community Problems: Adolescent pregnancy, access to clean drinking water, child abuse and neglect, crime, domestic violence, drug use, pollution, mismanagement of resources, lack of funding for schools and services, ethnic conflict, health disparities, HIV/ AIDS, hunger, inadequate emergency services, inequality, jobs, lack of affordable housing, poverty,  transportation, violence, racism and police brutality.

What others would you add?

Rather than aim for a complete problem list, here are some criteria you may consider when identifying community problems:

  • The problem occurs too frequently (frequency)
  • The problem has lasted for a while (duration)
  • The problem affects many people (scope, or range)
  • The problem is disrupting to personal or community life, and possibly intense (severity)
  • The problem deprives people of legal or moral rights (equity)
  • The issue is perceived as a problem (perception)

This last criterion, perception, is an important one, and can also help indicate readiness for addressing the issue within the community.

What is seen as a problem can vary from place to place and group to group in the same community. Although there's no official definition of a community problem, the above examples and criteria above should help you begin to name and analyze community problems.

Why should I analyze a community problem?

Analyzing community problems is a way of thinking carefully about a problem or issue before acting on a solution. It first involves identifying reasons a problem exists and then, identifying possible solutions and a plan for improvement.

Example: The downtown area of a community is declining. Stores are closing, and moving out; no new stores are moving in. We want to revitalize that downtown. How should we do it?

Our thinking here is simple:

  • We should start by analyzing why the decline is taking place, that is, why the problem is occurring. Without knowing causes, we cannot fix the problem. Jumping in and trying to fix it without analysis can cause a bigger problem and waste resources.
  • An in-depth analysis will lead to better long-run solutions.

Starting with an analysis can help…

To better identify what the problem or issue is.

Kids gather on the street. Sometimes they drink, and sometimes, they get rowdy. What is the problem here? The drinking, the rowdiness, the gathering itself? Or, is it possible that kids have nowhere else to go and few positive alternatives for engagement? Before looking for solutions, you would want to clarify just what is the problem (or problems) here. Unless you are clear, it's hard to move forward.

Problems are usually symptoms of something else. What is that something? We should find out.

To determine the barriers and resources associated with addressing the problem.

It's good practice and planning to anticipate barriers and obstacles before they might arise. By doing so, you can mitigate them. Analyzing community problems can also help you understand the resources you need. The better equipped you are with the right resources and support, the higher your chances of success.

To develop the best action steps for addressing the problem.

Having a plan of action is always better than taking a few random shots at the problem. If you know where you are going, you are more likely to get there.

Having a deeper understanding of a problem before you start trying to solve it helps you cover all of your bases. There's nothing worse for member involvement and morale than beginning to work on a problem, and running up against lots of obstacles, especially when they are avoidable.

When you take a little time to examine a problem first, you can anticipate some of these obstacles before they come up, and give yourself and your members better odds of coming up with a successful solution.

When should I analyze a community problem?

Every community problem benefits from analysis. The only possible exception is when the problem is an immediate crisis that requires action at this very moment. And even then, reviews should be conducted after to help plan for the next crisis.

However, there are conditions when an analysis is especially critical:

  • When the community problem is not defined clearly
  • When little is known about the community problem or its possible consequences
  • When you want to find causes that may improve the chance of successfully addressing the problem
  • When people are jumping to conclusions and solutions much too soon
  • When you need to find collaborative partners to help take action.

How should I analyze a community problem?

The ultimate goal is to understand the problem better and to deal with it more effectively, so the method you choose should accomplish that goal. We'll offer some step-by-step guidelines here and go over a couple of specific ways to determine the causes of the problem.

1. Justify the choice of the problem.

Apply the criteria we’ve listed above – frequency, duration, range, severity, equity, perception – as well as asking yourself whether your organization or another can address it effectively, in order to decide whether the problem is one that you should focus on.

Let’s take the problem we used as an example earlier: The percentage of overweight and obese children in the community has been steadily increasing, and now approaches 25%. Since we know that childhood obesity tends to lead to adult obesity, and that obesity and being overweight are linked to chronic conditions – diabetes, heart disease, stroke – this is a problem that needs to be addressed now. Our organization has the will and the ability to do it.

2. Frame the problem.

State the problem without implying a solution or blaming anyone, so that you can analyze it without any assumptions and build consensus around whatever solution you arrive at.  One way is to state it in terms of a lack of a positive behavior, condition, or other factor, or  the presence or size of a negative behavior, condition, or other factor.

There are too many children in the community who are overweight or obese. The problem is particularly serious among low-income families.

3. Identify whose behavior and/or what and how environmental factors need to change for the problem to begin to be solved.

This can be as straightforward as individuals changing their behavior from smoking to not smoking, or as complex as persuading legislators to change laws and policies (e.g., non-smoking ordinances) in order to change others’ behavior (smokers don’t smoke in buildings or enclosed spaces used by the public) in order to benefit yet another group by changing the environment (children are protected from secondhand smoke in public.)

All, and particularly low-income, children should have the opportunity and the motivation to eat more healthily and exercise more. Parents may need to change their children’s – and perhaps their own – diets, and schools may need to adjust their lunch programs and exercise schedules. In low-income neighborhoods, there needs to be greater access to healthy food and more safe places for children to play or participate in sports, both outdoors and indoors.

4. Analyze the root causes of the problem.

The real cause of a problem may not be immediately apparent.  It may be a function of a social or political system, or may be rooted in a behavior or situation that may at first glance seem unrelated to it. In order to find the underlying cause, you may have to use one or more analytical methods, including critical thinking and the “But Why?” technique.

Very briefly, the latter consists of stating the problem as you perceive it and asking “But why?” The next step is to answer that question as well as you can and then asking again, “But why?” By continuing this process until you get an answer that can’t be reduced further, you can often get to the underlying cause of the problem, which will tell you where to direct your efforts to solve it.

The difference between recognizing a problem and finding its root cause is similar to the difference between a doctor’s treating the symptoms of a disease and actually curing the disease. Once a disease is understood well enough to cure, it is often also understood well enough to prevent or eliminate. Similarly, once you understand the root causes of a community problem, you may be able not only to solve it, but to establish systems or policies that prevent its return.

There are too many children in the community who are overweight or obese. The problem is particularly serious among low-income families. (But why?)

Because many low-income children don’t eat a healthy diet and don’t exercise enough. (But why?)

Because their parents, in many cases, don’t have the knowledge of what a healthy diet consists of, and because, even if they did, they lack access in their neighborhoods to healthy foods – no supermarkets, produce markets, farmers’ markets, or restaurants serving healthy food – and therefore shop at convenience stores and eat out at fast food places. Kids don’t play outside because it’s too dangerous – gang activity and drug dealing make the street no place for children. (But why?)

Parents may never have been exposed to information about healthy food – they simply don’t have the knowledge. Market owners view low-income neighborhoods as unprofitable and dangerous places to do business. The streets are dangerous because there are few job opportunities in the community, and young men turn to making money in any way possible.

By this point, you should have a fair understanding of why kids don’t eat healthily or get enough exercise. As you continue to question, you may begin to think about advocacy with local officials for incentives to bring supermarkets to low-income neighborhoods, or for after-school programs that involve physical exercise, or for parent nutrition education or for anti-gang programs…or for all of these and other efforts besides. Or continued questioning may reveal deeper causes that you feel your organization can tackle.

5. Identify the restraining and driving forces that affect the problem.

This is called a force field analysis. It means looking at the restraining forces that act to keep the problem from changing (social structures, cultural traditions, ideology, politics, lack of knowledge, lack of access to healthy conditions, etc.) and the driving forces that push it toward change (dissatisfaction with the way things are, public opinion, policy change, ongoing public education efforts, existing alternatives to unhealthy or unacceptable activity or conditions, etc.) Consider how you can use your understanding of these forces in devising solutions to the problem.

Forces restraining change here include:

  • The desirability and availability of junk food – kids like it because it tastes good (we’re programmed as a species to like fat, salt, and sugar), and you can get it on every corner in practically any neighborhood.
  • The reluctance of supermarket chains to open stores in low-income neighborhoods.
  • The domination of the streets by gangs and drug dealers.

Some forces driving change might be:

  • Parents’ concern about their children’s weight.
  • Children’s desire to participate in sports or simply to be outdoors.
  • Media stories about the problem of childhood obesity and its consequences for children, both now and in their later lives.

A full force field analysis probably would include many more forces in each category.

6. Find any relationships that exist among the problem you’re concerned with and others in the community.

In analyzing root causes, you may have already completed this step. It may be that other problems stem from the same root cause, and that there are other organizations with whom you could partner. Understanding the relationships among community issues can be an important step toward resolving them.

We’ve already seen connections to lack of education, unemployment, lack of after-school programs, and gang violence and crime, among other issues. Other organizations may be working on one or more of these, and a collaboration might help both of you to reach your goals.

7. Identify personal factors that may contribute to the problem.

Whether the problem involves individual behavior or community conditions, each individual affected by it brings a whole collection of knowledge (some perhaps accurate, some perhaps not), beliefs, skills, education, background, experience, culture, and assumptions about the world and others, as well as biological and genetic traits. Any or all of these might contribute to the problem or to its solution…or both.

A few examples:

  • Genetic predisposition for diabetes and other conditions.
  • Lack of knowledge about healthy nutrition.
  • Lack of knowledge/ skills for preparing healthy foods.

8. Identify environmental factors that may contribute to the problem.

Just as there are factors relating to individuals that may contribute to or help to solve the problem you’re concerned with, there are also factors within the community environment that may do the same. These might include the availability or lack of services, information, and other support; the degree of accessibility and barriers to, and opportunities for services, information, and other support; the social, financial, and other costs and benefits of change; and such overarching factors as poverty, living conditions, official policy, and economic conditions.

Sample environmental factors:

  • Poverty
  • Lack of employment and hope for young men in low-income neighborhoods
  • Lack of availability of healthy food in low-income neighborhoods
  • General availability – at school as well as elsewhere – of snack foods high in salt, sugar, and fat
  • Constant media bombardment of advertising of unhealthy snacks, drinks, and fast food

9. Identify targets and agents of change for addressing the problem.

Whom should you focus your efforts on, and who has the power to improve the situation?  Often, these may be the same people. The best solution to a particular problem may be policy change of some sort, for instance, and the best route to that may be to mount an advocacy effort aimed at officials who can make it happen. People who are suffering from lack of skills or services may be the ones who can do the most to change their situation. In other cases, your targets may be people whose behavior or circumstances need to change, and you may want to recruit agents of change to work with you in your effort. The point of this step is to understand where and how to direct your work most effectively.

Targets of change might include:

Parents of children in low-income neighborhoods (or all parents in the community) for education purposes
The children themselves
Elementary and middle school teachers
School officials responsible for school food programs
Executives and Public Relations officers of supermarket chains
Gang members and youth at risk of becoming gang members

A short list of potential agents of change:

Parents of children in low-income neighborhoods (or all parents in the community) as controllers of their children’s diets
The Superintendent of Schools, School Committee, and school administrators, as well as those directly responsible for school food programs
Local public officials who could create incentives for markets to move into underserved neighborhoods
Community Recreation Commissions, school officials, YMCAs, and other entities that might create safe outdoor and indoor physical activity programs for children
Community hospitals, clinics, and private medical practices
Public relations offices of national or regional fast food restaurant chains

With your analysis complete, you can develop a strategic plan that speaks to the real causes of the problem and focuses on those targets and/or agents of change that are most likely to contribute to improving the situation.

Going beyond the basics -- does analysis really work?

Try this analysis out with a current problem in your own community setting.

What do you conclude? We hope you'll find some value in analysis. We do know that when we have tried this method with real problems in our own communities, we have drawn some additional conclusions of our own, going beyond the basics:

  • Analyzing community problems can be hard work. It takes real mental effort. We're not used to sitting down and thinking deeply about a problem. (We're too busy!)
  • Real community problems are likely to be complex. Economic development may depend on the global economy, a force you can't have much effect on. You may have opposition, either from within the community itself, or from powerful forces trying to protect their own interests.
  • When you go looking for reasons and underlying causes for significant problems, you are likely to find more than one. Several different reasons may be influencing the problem, in different amounts, all at the same time. It may not be an easy task to untangle all the reasons and their relative strengths, but it may be necessary in order to reach a solution.
  • The problem may not only have more than one reason; it may have more than one solution too. Problems often call for multi-pronged solutions. That is, difficult problems often must be approached from more than one direction. So in revitalizing the downtown, you might want to (a) beautify the streets; (b) expand the staff of the chamber of commerce; (c) run sidewalk sales; (d) look for outside loans; and (e) recruit new businesses. These are all parts of the solution. Many different types of actions might be necessary for revitalization.

When analyzing real community problems, the analysis may show multiple reasons behind the problem. The analysis may not always be easy. The solution may be more difficult still.

But that's why problems are problems. Community problems exist precisely because they often resist clear analysis and solution. They persist despite our efforts. They can be real challenges.

Yet this doesn't mean we are helpless. Analysis, including the analytic methods we have described, can take you a long way. With good analysis, some resources, and enough determination, we believe even the most troublesome problems can be addressed, and ultimately, solved.

Bill Berkowitz

Online Resources

Assessment Primer: Analyzing the Community, Identifying Problems and Setting Goals is provided by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America and the National Community Anti-Drug Coalition Institute. This helpful primer is designed to provide clear guidelines for anti-drug coalitions in defining their communities and assessing the real needs within them.

Best Practices to Address Community Gang Problems from is a report that provides guidance to communities that are considering how to address a youth gang problem.

Framing the Issue, by Trudy Rice, Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel and Karla Trautman, is a useful resource that explains how to analyze community problems and access community data. It includes a detailed step-by-step presentation.

Print Resources

Avery, M., Auvine, B., Streibel, B., & Weiss, L. (1981). Building united judgement: A handbook for consensus decision making. Madison, WI: Center for Conflict Resolution. (Available from the Center at P.O. Box 2156, Madison, WI 53701 -2156).

Cox, F. (1995). Community problem solving: A guide to practice with comments. In Rothman, J., Erlich, J., & Tropman, J. (eds.), Strategies of community intervention (5th ed., pp. 146-162). Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock.

Dale, D., & Mitiguy, N. (1978). Planning for a change: A citizen's guide to creative planning and program development. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, Citizen Involvement Training Project.

Johnson, D., & Johnson, F. (1997). Joining together: Group theory and group skills (6th ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Lawson, L., Donant, F., & Lawson, J. (1982). Lead on! The complete handbook for group leaders. San Luis Obispo, CA: Impact Publishers.

Mondross, J., & Wilson, S. (1994). Organizing for power and empowerment. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.