Felt, observed, and real needs
I think it is useful to understand the distinction between felt needs, observed needs, and real needs (a distinction Ward Goodenough made in his 1963 book, Cooperation in Change) and aspire to find and increase their overlap.
Felt needs are the needs identified by the members of a community (or any collaborative group). Felt needs are identified based on the information available to the members, however incomplete and inaccurate that information might be, and how the members interpret that information in the context of their own experiences and predispositions.
Observed needs are the needs identified by the change agent (outsider, leader, facilitator, donor, etc.). They might be the same as the members’ felt needs – or not. Change agents identify observed needs based on the information available to them, however incomplete and inaccurate that information might be, and how they interpret that information in the context of their own experiences and predispositions.
Real needs are the needs that could be determined by an omniscient being. Real needs would be identified based on perfect information – information that is complete and accurate – interpreted in the context of all reality without bias.
Neither the members’ felt needs nor the change agent’s observed needs should be presumed to be the real needs. Together, members and change agents should aspire to better identify the real needs, but all the while exercising doubt, learning from others and keeping their minds open to new understandings and insights.
Goodenough, Ward (1963). Cooperation in change. Chapter 3: Wants and Needs, pp. 49-60. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.