Writing the “problem statement” or “needs statement” of a grant can be confusing and daunting to the grant writer (who, me?) trying to make the case for an organization that needs funding. We often see the problem as a lack of something. For many organizations, this is true. A lack of money, staff, time, or focus, etc. – this issue is a major problem…for the organization. The problem statement of the grant, however, is not about the organization or its staff. The focus is on the community or the constituents the organization serves. Grantmakers want to know about the community’s problems and what your organization is doing to correct it. What does the community need? Why is your organization the solution to that problem? These are the questions we should be thinking about as we begin to tell the story of the problem we are seeking to solve.
Let’s say that teen pregnancy is on the rise in Community A and the high school drop out rate of teen mothers is 50% (higher than the national average of 40%). Organization Z is applying for a grant that will fund a program that provides free babysitting to teen mothers while they attend courses to complete a GED. The statements below are example problem statements. Which one is the correct problem statement pertaining to this example?
- Teen pregnancy and childbirth accounted for $1,000,000 in costs to Community A for increased health care and foster care in 2012. Community A witnessed a 20% increase in teen pregnancy is last year.
- Teen pregnancy in Community A contributes to a drop out rate among 40% of girls. Approximately half of teen mothers in our community receive a high school diploma by the time they are 22, the same as the national average.
While increased health care and foster care costs are problematic for the nation in general and Community A specifically, these are not the problems Organization Z seeks to solve. In Example B, the statistics provided are directly related to the high school drop out rate among teen mothers in Community A. Example B gives a clearer picture of the problem Organization Z is attempting to solve. A complete problem statement might also include an explanation of how inadequate childcare impacts a teen mother’s ability to graduate and related statistics. Organization Z is not trying to eradicate or even reduce the teen pregnancy problem. The focus here is what is to be done about the high school drop out rate in Community A and Organization Z’s ability to meet the need.
A discussion of the problem statement should highlight why the problem exists in the community. It should assess how the problem can be remedied and whether or not the community (and the organization) is ready to address it.
A quick review of this document will provide insight into how to write a convincing problem statement. The document is especially helpful if you are writing for federal grants points. About.com provides a great overview of writing the needs statement if writing for a nonprofit. Of course, I always recommend taking free webinars and short trainings to improve grant writing skills. Free courses can be found in a quick Google (or other search engine) search. The Foundation Center offers a free short course about writing the problem statement.
I will probably write about this topic more than once as I continue to hone this skill. The problem statement is quite possibly the trickiest part of the grant writing process and it’s the most critical in making funders understand the needs of the community.