How to write a good problem statement

When a funder asks for a problem statement (or a needs assessment), it’s an opportunity to explain the rationale for why you need support. The goal is to explain the issues while framing the problem in a way that sets the stage for your solution.

Unfortunately, I find that many problem statements don’t do justice to the work being proposed. They either don’t sufficiently describe the problem or they don’t frame the issue so that the proposed project seems like a good solution (or they just aren’t written well).

Here are three questions every good problem statement should answer to ensure you set up a compelling rationale for your proposed work:

  1. What is the need? I know this sounds obvious, but oftentimes people don’t accurately define the problem. It’s as if every organization is a hammer, so everything is a nail. You want to think about what’s causing the situation you’re trying to remedy and why it’s problematic. Describe the situation, why it’s bad for the constituents you serve, and what the barriers are to fixing it. If you set it up right, your work will be directly responsive – overcoming barriers and tackling the causes of the situation.
  2. Why is this important? Again, this might be an obvious question, but I’ve seen many problem statements that fail to answer it well. I’m sure you care about the problem and I’m sure you think it’s important, but why should I as a funder care? Why does this problem matter to the things I care about? Think about your audience and consider the broader impacts of the problem. Another way to frame the question is “so what?” Keep asking that question until you get to a compelling reason your audience will care about as much as you do.
  3. Why now? Funders have lots of proposals in front of them, and usually a limited budget for grantmaking. There are others who will also make the case that their work is important, so why should they support your work this year and not next year? You can frame this in two ways: either state why the situation is so dire it demands action now (crisis), or state why the conditions are ripe now for action (opportunity). Either way, make the case for why your work needs to happen now (or soon) to maximize impact.

Remember that you are not your target audience – you know more, you believe more, and you probably care more. Crafting a compelling argument requires understanding your audience and using solid reasoning. And it never hurts to test it out with people outside your organization – loyal donors, committed funders, or volunteers.

Whatever you do, make certain you have a convincing problem statement. It’s the first and critical step to garnering support for your work!


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