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Writing the Problem Statement

Written by Stephenie Slahor

Your community has a problem, need or opportunity. Your agency has the solution. Your potential grantor wants to know about those two facts. This is where you must write your problem statement or needs assessment for your grant application.

“Get specific about why a problem needs your program,” Rod Helm of Grant Writing USA says. Whether it’s a threat assessment, vulnerability or a golden opportunity, your problem statement or needs assessment is “values driven” as it describes the specific situation that is moving along your project. This means the problem statement/needs assessment tells about something in your community or in a group that will be served by your project.

For nearly all projects, it does not talk about the needs within your organization. The exception to this, Helm says, is if you are asking the grantor to fund a program that will improve your agency’s performance or efficiency. Then the problem statement would be referring directly to the need within your organization.

But for most grants, you are seeking help for a problem outside your organization, in the community, that your agency can help remedy. To put it another way, the fact that your agency lacks money is not the problem—the community problem, need or opportunity is what you are addressing.

Your problem statement/needs assessment tells the reader, in detail, about the situation that is “external” to your agency. “Don’t assume the grantmaker understands how your statements lead, one to the next,” Helm says. Make your writing flow through the problem statement so even an uninformed reader will understand what the problem, need or opportunity is. “Make it flow to a conclusion,” Helm advises, adding, “You won’t get high marks for leaving them wondering.”

Link the problem or need with the role your agency will play in remedying. Include input not only from your agency’s viewpoint, but also from outside your agency such as local leaders, prospective clients, professionals in the field, or administrators of groups that will coordinate or cooperate with you on the project. This input can reinforce the importance of a solution for the problem or need.

If it is something of national or state concern, that’s an important facet of the problem, need or opportunity, but you must also show how it is also “local” to your area. Statistics can describe what’s happening on the national or state level; however, include what’s happening in your geographic area.

Don’t go overboard with statistics, Helm warns. Charts, graphs and numbers can tell a story, but they should be used sparingly, for a strategic function or reason. If it is necessary to include many charts, graphs or statistics, put them in the appendix if the grant’s Request For Proposals allows an appendix section. “Judiciously extract what’s salient only,” Helm says. “It’s not just facts and figures. It can have a human side, too.” Spell out why percentages and statistics are relevant to the exact case in your locality.

Define the problem, need or opportunity clearly and logically. Link it with the role your agency will play in its remedy (or development, if it’s an opportunity)—the method(s) you’ll use to tackle the problem.

Helm suggests making a personal worksheet to help you organize this correctly, because learning how to distinguish the difference between problems and methods is critical. Take a sheet of paper and divide it in half lengthwise. At the top, write why you are applying for the grant. In the left-hand column, write the appropriate heading—“Problem” or “Need” or “Opportunity.” In the right-hand column, write the heading “Methods.”

For example, suppose your agency wants a grant to cover officer overtime to cite speeders who shortcut through a particular residential neighborhood on the way to the freeway. If you said the “problem” was that your agency didn’t have the money to pay for the officer overtime, you’d be on the wrong track. Paying an otherwise off-duty officer is a method, Helm says, not a problem.

Your grantmaker would then wonder why you aren’t considering other methods such as using an on-duty officer, radar, speed bumps, etc., because those are methods, too. Helm offers this advice for being sure you are addressing problems, not methods: Ask yourself if you are saying, “We have a lack of…” If you are saying “lack of,” you’re probably referring to a method, not a problem.

Another way to think about the division between problem and method is to remember the problem is objective and outside your agency, whereas the method is subjective and inside your agency, and is therefore subject to interpretation, prejudice and bias.

Helm offers this little scenario to illustrate: Suppose a child eating an ice cream cone gets the ice cream all over his face. The dirty face is the problem (objective situation of a certain, definable dimension, outside of you). Solving the problem would need methods of cleaning the child’s face (subjective judgment about which method, each of which is subject to interpretation and biases—washing the child’s face for him, having the child wash his own face, having a puppy lick off the ice cream, using a foil-wrapped wipe, etc.).

Helm says the problem or need is outside you and your agency, but the method is the solutions from inside you and your agency. Get the distinction so that your writing in your problem statement or needs assessment is logical and not circular.

Helm says if you put yourself in the reader’s shoes, it can help. The grantmaker will 1) want to know about your agency, 2) want to know what the problem or need is that your agency is addressing, 3) see if the problem or need is of a reasonable dimension that relates to the purposes of your agency (e.g. your agency can actually do something about the problem over the period of time of the grant), and 4) and judge whether the grant is seeking something that will help clients/the community or merely meet the needs of the agency.

“Pick your fights wisely,” Helm advises. “Ask what is the problem I am going to go after, and what would be the thing to take credit for?” He gives this example: Suppose your agency is seeking money to buy gym equipment for officer use. If you apply to a grantor saying the officers need better fitness, your application might fail. But if you point out that better fitness will cut workers’ compensation claims, you might win the grant.

Be prepared to present a variety of methods, pointing out the reasons why some would work and why others would not. “Don’t be so tied up in what you write that you can’t delete,” Helm adds. Instead, keep a “continuity of mission” in your writing. “Developing the problem statement or needs assessment is usually the hardest part of writing a proposal,” he says.

So focus on how the project relates to your agency, and how it is manageable in a “reasonable” dimension. Support your writing with statements and statistics not only from national or State sources, but also from the local level. Avoid confusing “problem” with “method.” Use plain, jargon-free language to keep your problem statement or needs assessment easy to read and coherent.

Stephenie Slahor, PhD is a lawyer who writes in the fields of law enforcement and security.

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2006

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