Editors’ note:
This article, first published in print during Mar/Apr 2014, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

YOU MIGHT BE ASKING an individual for money, making a pitch at a fundraising house party, or speaking at a conference. Maybe you are sending a letter asking a business for support or drafting a written proposal to a foundation or government agency. Your first challenge, in a very short amount of time (or space), is to persuade the prospect to care about the issues and people you care about. Only when you achieve that will prospects be open to hearing about what a good program you run. The case you make is called the “problem statement” or “need statement.”

Prospects want to know about the broader issues and root causes you are ad-dressing. Every nonprofit needs money, so the “problem” they want to hear about is not that you will have to close programs and layoff staff without their support. The “problem” is the situation in the world, the issue you are addressing, and why your group believes it must do something.

Here are 15 tips for an excellent problem statement:

  1. Paint a vivid picture of the current situation. Tell a captivating story about the challenges. Use adjectives to heighten the imagery. Consider beginning with “Imagine…” For example, “Imagine growing up in foster home after foster home, with no long-term connection with any loving adults….” Or “Imagine if the empty lot at the corner of A & B Streets, now filled with beer bottles and empty syringes, were a flourishing community garden, filled with happy people of all ages sharing stories about their gardening successes and challenges.” Tell what the land looks like, who and what it is near, who owns it, what hurdles need to be overcome to create a garden, and who would then use it.
  2. Describe the constituency you serve. What can you say about their race, ethnicity, occupation, urban/rural, experience, etc.?
  3. Identify and characterize the geographic area you cover. Describe in an interesting and understandable way the geography you serve. This is particularly important if you are approaching a funder elsewhere, who might not know anything about your community.
  4. Convey the extent of the problem. Persuade the prospect that the need is real and important. The most effective data often is from a source independent of you, such as a government agency or another nonprofit. If you can’t find such research—or none exists—rely on your own participatory research. For example, “95 percent of the clients in our medical clinic tell us they have not seen a dentist in at least five years.”
  5. Demonstrate the urgency. Has a recent gang injunction policy been targeting and locking up some of your key youth leaders? Share the pressing issues facing your community so your prospective funder can understand that your work cannot wait.
  6. Avoid circular reasoning. Don’t say, “Our community needs a swimming pool because it does not have one.” You need a swimming pool because it will provide exercise and build a community for kids who might not have anything else to do on hot summer days.
  7. Find the right balance between presenting statistics and pulling heart-strings. How do you know if you are using too many statistics or too few? Being too emotional or not emotional enough? Rely on the judgment of trusted friends not associated with your organization. Present the draft problem statement (orally or in writing), and ask what they think and how they feel. You want listeners (and readers) to respond to your presentation by becoming emotionally connected to your issue.
  8. Show timeliness when possible. People like to donate when the time is right. For example, your pitch is timely if you focus on the need for better pre-schools in your community as part of a campaign to affect state agency decision-makers who are developing a new regulation that could support (or hurt) local preschools.
  9. Don’t be a downer. If your presentation is overly dismal, the prospect may prefer to focus their donations on problems that don’t make them feel hopeless. That’s just human nature. People want to support hope and not hopeless situations. Find a way to be real while also offering solutions and generative ideas that address the conditions you’re up against.
  10. Present evidence that the problem has solutions. Cite research about programs that have been shown to be effective, including the kind you are operating. Or explain that you are testing something that has never before been tried and how you will measure the effectiveness of your approach and report the results to other nonprofits. It’s a good idea for every organization trying to change the world to recruit a professor to keep up on the research and let you know what strategies are being implemented elsewhere in the country (or the world) and which ones have been shown to be most effective.
  11. Convey your knowledge and insight. Don’t say that your organization is knowledgeable and insightful, demonstrate those qualities. Convey that your organization understands the problem well enough to be in a good position to address it.
  12. Speak to your audience and their values. While some funders you are prospecting will share your values completely, others might not be a perfect match. Speak to what you know they’re interested in without compromising your organizational values. If it seems like a funder will not be an ally, don’t waste your time putting in a full proposal. If it’s a foundation or business, consider having an initial call with a program officer or speaking with one of their current grantees to get a better sense of their values and priorities before approaching them for support.
  13. Say enough but not too much. Some fundraising books say a written problem statement can be as long as three or four pages, but most funders now request complete proposals no longer than five or six pages. And if you are talking with someone directly, you might have only a few minutes to make a powerful case before their attention wanders. You should be able to describe the problem in one page, one paragraph, and even one sentence. Sometimes social service groups are much better at describing their work than the problem they address because the latter is so difficult to think and talk about. Challenge yourself to be real and direct about the issues you are working on, even if they are emotionally charged for you.
  14. In a written problem statement, do not talk about what your organization is going to do to address the problem. A description of your program belongs elsewhere in a written pitch, in a different section or at least in a different paragraph. You want to make it easy for the prospect to go back to your written communication and find what they are looking for. Presenting the need (the problem) and the solution (your program) separately makes their task easier. The one exception to this tip is if you are seeking funds to make your organization stronger (capacity building) or for a capital campaign, rather than to run a program. In those cases, the problem statement has to talk both about the problem in the world that your organization addresses and your organization’s need to become stronger with a new building, computer system, or training program.
  15. Match the scale of the problem to the scale of your program. A few years ago, a student in my grant writing course at Sonoma State University drafted a problem statement that described in compelling terms how human life is at risk due to threats to the planet’s life support systems. His program description, though, described how his group wanted to educate the public during Sonoma County’s many summer fairs. While the latter was a good project, it appeared to be a drop in the bucket compared to the huge scale of the problem he had defined. His proposal became much more compelling after he rewrote the problem statement to describe the Sonoma County public’s enthusiasm for sustainable living and the opportunity to reach tens of thousands of people on that theme each summer at community fairs.
  16. Following these tips will help you be more effective in persuading your fund-raising prospects to care about the issues and people you care about. Once you have accomplished that, you will have gotten over a major hurdle to securing funding. Your prospects are now ready to listen eagerly to how your organization is working to address the problem, and ultimately, consider giving you money. n
  17. The author encourages you to identify more tips for an excellent problem statement. You may communicate with her at Kunofsky@ jmjline.com.

Judy Kunofsky has many years’ experience in virtually every aspect of nonprofit work. Now a consultant, she assists nonprofits through her business, JMJ Consulting, specializing in foundation and government prospect research and proposal writing. She does training on fundraising in general and on foundation fundraising in particular, and teaches the grant writing course at Sonoma State University, part of their Masters in Public Administration Program. She is also part-time executive director of KlezCalifornia.