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Four Common Errors when Writing a Needs Statement and How to Avoid Them

I co-teach a grant writing class through our local chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Each time we teach it, we spend about three of the seven sessions on needs statements. Why? 

People have a hard time accurately and persuasively describing their needs. These four examples of common errors and ways to overcome them come from our students' first assignment (and used with their permission).

Talking about the organization's needs, not the client's needs

“We desperately need functional and well-equipped STEM labs”

“Our organization provides emergency shelter and transitional housing to an average of 75-80 individuals per night and serves over 14,000 meals per year. Continuing to provide these critical services has become extremely difficult.”

Both of these beg the questions of WHY the organization desperately needs functional and well-equipped STEM labs and to provide emergency shelter, transitional housing, and meals. They imply that students lack sufficient STEM knowledge and that the service area has a lot of homeless individuals. Say that! Your funders exist to meet community needs, not keep you in business. Focusing on your clients' needs will better persuade your grantor to act.

Describing the need too vaguely

“Creating truly integrated STEM courses that are authentic and flexible enough to be taught to students of varying skill levels is challenging.”
This sentence says nothing. Perhaps creating authentic STEM courses require technology and the organization lacks the technology, but this sentence does not say this. Be specific.

Not describing the prevalence of the need

“In our community, many factors contribute to poor oral and dental health among children, but lack of insurance and access to care are two of the most prominent.”

The above examples also suffer from this problem:  poor STEM education and homelessness exist, but how broadly? In the internet age, no grant writer has an excuse not to quantify the need.

Where to find these data? I start at the U.S. Census Bureau ( School districts have great community and even neighborhood-specific data. (Thank you, No Child Left Behind!) If nothing else, google it. Find out nationally how many parents do not have dental insurance and extrapolate. In about 5 minutes, I found the following using these sources:

“In our community, more than 22,000 children – 3 in 10 – lack dental insurance.”

This example also relates the scope of the need to a level the reader can understand. Is 22,000 children a lot? Perhaps not in a huge metropolitan area, but in our community that is 30% of all children under 18. Wow! Now I really understand the prevalence of the problem in my community and want to act.

So What?

I have fun with this one in class. Go back to the dental health example previously described. Even if we know that 30% of all kids lacks dental insurance, so what? You need to tie lack of insurance to not going to the dentist, but so what? Not going to the dentist sounds great to most kids (and adults)!! In reality, poor dental health causes cardiovascular disease, dementia, respiratory illness, and complicates diabetes. Now we have some serious health problems that we need to address through this program.

A well-written grant tells a story. The need statement sets the stage; it tells the audience why they should care about the problem that underlies the program or project for which you seek funds. Without a strong introduction, you risk losing the audience's attention and interest. Have them leave your need statement saying “wow!” rather than “so what?” Now you have them more likely to read your solution with interest and ultimately open their checkbook.
M. Linda Wastyn, Ph.D., owns Wastyn & Associates, and has nearly 30 years of grant writing, management, and development experience in higher education, health care, arts and culture, human services, and community development.