June 6, 2017

Writing Your Needs Statement: Why Care?

The typical grant proposal has several sections: Needs Statement, Project Description, Goals and Objectives, Organizational Capacity, and Evaluation. By and large, most proposals fit this general framework, whether they are 50 page federal proposals, or a 2 page-letter of inquiry to a foundation. The needs statement usually opens the proposal and sets the stage for the rest of the document.

Honestly, I love writing the needs statement. There is something about balancing the research necessary with the requirement to make a funder care about the issue area, geography, or demographic you are trying to serve. A solid needs statement answers the question: “Why care?” It demonstrates to the funder that there is a problem that is important, significant, and urgent.

Perhaps just as importantly, the needs statement should also set the stage for your organization to address that problem. It should demonstrate to the funder that you understand the community, and begin to make the case for your organization’s ability to address that need. It is an opportunity to build the funder’s trust in your organization.

What components comprise a well-written needs statement? Consider incorporating the following information:

  • What is the problem? Describe the issue that your community or clients see. Outline steps that are currently being taken to address this problem. There are a variety of ways you can document the problem: national, state, or local reports; news articles; quotations from community stakeholders, political leaders, government agencies, etc.; Census data or other sources.[1] Note: The Grant Plant has developed a resource list handout with helpful sites; e-mail me to receive a copy.
  • Where is the problem happening? Is it nationwide? Statewide? Or maybe this problem is more pronounced in a certain city, area, or neighborhood? Make sure to convey a sense of place to your reader. Focus on the area in which your organization will be working, but also balance that with the significance of the problem at a larger scale, if applicable. You can use comparative statistics to demonstrate the significance of the problem in your area versus other areas of the state or nation.
  • Who is the target population? Use demographics – numbers, gender, age, race/ethnicity, and other significant descriptors to paint a picture for the reader about the people who are impacted by the problem.
  • When is it a problem? When did the problem start? Did this problem become significantly worse recently? Is this a critical time for the population? If the problem is addressed now, will it alleviate future problems down the road? Addressing some of these questions will help you build a sense of urgency around the issue.
  • What does it cost to the larger community? Here you can expand on the future ramifications if the problem is not addressed. You also have the opportunity to discuss actual or projected costs. For example, if we intervene now by providing effective after school tutoring, we save on future costs of remediation programs. There are research sources out there that can help quantify costs. One such source that I’ve used frequently is the Washington Institute of Public Policy, which provides a cost benefit analysis of programs across several sectors (e.g. juvenile justice, early childhood education, mental health, and more).

In the needs statement, it is important to use data that backs up the overall picture. Recognize that data and statistics are the most objective way to back up what you are trying to convey. However, be sure your sources meet the following standards: they are timely, unbiased, and reliable. Timely data demonstrates that you are on top of your field, as a reader will often question a source that is several years out of date. Generally, you will want to use unbiased data and avoid sources of research that support a certain viewpoint or agenda. And using reliable, verifiable sources helps establish your own credibility. It doesn’t do you any good to cite sources that the funder will discredit upon reading. One good example of this is Wikipedia. I love Wikipedia as a source of background information as I’m learning about a subject, but you have to be careful to not use this as credible information. Since anyone can post to Wikipedia, it is subject to having misinformation. A simple trick is to check the original sources at the bottom of wiki entries, and review those sites or articles, as many of these do meet the criteria for being reliable.

Also think through how you present data and statistics in the needs statement. Remember that these should support your case, and not be the only piece of the needs statement. Someone is reading this on the other end, and too many statistics can make your reader zone out! Think through your wording so you can convey the most impact. This can be as simple as changing a percentage into a ratio; for example, saying one-in-five children live in poverty, rather than 20.2%. Also consider using whitespace, tables, charts, and graphs as formatting allows in order to make the information easy to understand for your reader.

Finally, a common stumbling block to writing a strong needs statement is making the need about your organization rather than the problem in the community. For example:

  • Our organization needs additional literacy coaches in order to fulfill our mission.
  • We need a new curriculum for financial capability for Spanish speaking immigrants.
  • We need an emergency grant in order to keep our doors open.

Don’t do this! Instead, go back a few steps until you get to a need or problem in the community, that your internal situation can affect. Why are additional literacy coaches needed? If you’re having trouble teasing these apart, use the grant as a learning opportunity. Research will help you identify what the need of the community is versus the gaps in your agency. For example, the needs statement framing the problem that a literacy organization is trying to solve would be better as: Illiteracy is a significant problem in our community affecting XXX number of adults. This rate has been on the rise due to x, y, and z factors.

In conclusion, all of this discussion about the needs statement boils down to engaging the reader – answering questions like “why care?” and “so what?” These two fairly generic questions can be powerful tools in refining your needs statement. I ask them when looking to strengthen language or to dig deeper into root causes, implications of problems, and the general importance of what I’m writing about. Make sure you hook your reader into continuing on with your proposal, setting your agency up to be the organization that the funder will trust to address the problem in your community.

The needs statement can be a time-intensive undertaking, but when done right, it will help the funder understand your community and problem, care about it, and perhaps make a grant to your organization to work on the solution!


Contact: Erin Hielkema, Vice President. erin@thegrantplantnm.com

[1] Our partners at The Grants Collective are hosting a training by the Census on June 13, 2017. Register on Eventbrite.

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