How to Write a Proper Problem Statement for Grants

Be sure to properly communicate that your needs match those of the funder and provide enough details in your grant application.
Published: April 25, 2011

It is an almost weekly occurrence for me to review grant applications for public safety agencies that have been rejected. These are most often accompanied by a note from the grant writer who thought they had turned in a good grant. The writer has no idea why the application was rejected. They also frequently state that they “cannot understand why the department right next door, who is smaller than us, received the award when they run less calls for service than we do.”

The writer needs to focus more on what was wrong with their own application and quit pointing fingers at neighboring agencies that most probably presented a clearer and better problem statement.

What I consistently find wrong with narrative statements can usually be attributed to two things:

1. Failure to form a proper nexus between the funding sources needs and the applicant’s own.
2. A distinct lack of adequate detail and information to justify that there is a problem for which the grant funding exists to resolve.

Satisfy the Funder’s Priorities First

Let’s start by examining the basic definition of a grant: “Money or equipment given to perform certain deeds or services to provide a unique solution, to a unique problem, in a unique community.” The funding source has secured funding that they are willing to give away in order to address certain priorities that they have decided need attention. The key here is: the funding source has established priorities of its own.

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In simple English, if you want their money, you have to satisfy their priorities first. The experienced grant writer knows that the key to winning this funding is to form a proper nexus between your own need and the needs and priorities of the funding source. This is accomplished with the grant narrative by providing a proper problem statement, which establishes your need.

Related Article: 12 Common Mistakes Campuses Make When Applying for Grants

This problem statement is comprised of several items that must be adequately explained in sufficient detail such that any questions the reviewer may have are answered within your document. Think of your grant narrative as a jigsaw puzzle. You must provide the pieces to that jigsaw puzzle so that the reviewer can piece them altogether into one comprehensive picture. When written properly, the narrative will provide the reviewer with the components to satisfy the above statement of providing a unique solution to a unique problem in a unique community.

Example of an Ineffective Statement
Let’s examine what a proper problem statement should contain. Read the following failed problem statement from a law enforcement grant (the real name of the agency and town have been changed and are completely fictional). The writer is trying to obtain some low light style binoculars and puncture resistant gloves that are eligible under the program as an officer safety priority.

Law Enforcement has historically been a dangerous profession and continues to be one of the most dangerous. Current statistics indicate that from 1994-2003 56.2 percent of the officers killed in the line of duty and 67.3 percent of the officers assaulted in the line of duty occurred between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. It’s during this time, especially in winter months, where officers are required to work in near dark or total dark conditions.

Officers are routinely required to respond to potentially dangerous situations such as auto accidents, or fires involving hazardous materials or chemical spills. The City of Anywhere has a light industrial complex, with various types of stored and transported chemicals, including a factory that manufactures plastic toys from petroleum-based products and chemicals. The ability to view the site from a distance in low light or dark conditions could be vital to the survival of a responding officer.

The City of Anywhere also has over 75 miles of roadway, including several miles of road on U.S. Highway 5, and State Road Highway 4. U.S. Highway 5 is a highly traveled roadway that directly links Average City and Lake of the Fish to the greater metro area, and is a major conduit for truck and transport traffic. The City of Anywhere routinely investigates close to 400 auto accidents per year, and despite efforts to increase traffic enforcement, the amount of traffic continues to increase, as does the instance of automobile accidents.

Approximately 25,000 vehicles pass through the intersection of U.S. Highway 5 and State Road 4 per day. Due to the proximity of Interstate 4, this route is a direct supply route to Anywhere, Somewhere, and other municipalities in and around the county.

Having access to the low light binoculars in each patrol vehicle will greatly increase officer safety by allowing the officer to remain a safe distance away from any possible hazards or accident scenes to survey the situation prior to approaching. Additionally, the binoculars can be used during routine patrol and surveillance operations. The police department conducts roughly 100 surveillance operations per year, including some stakeouts and visual observation of residences or businesses.

The city has experienced rapid growth and expansion, and as a result, has numerous houses and subdivisions under construction, including a 168-unit apartment complex and various industrial construction projects. Thefts from these construction sites have become an increasing problem, aided in part by the fact that most of the areas have little or no light source where tools and construction trailers are stored. Most construction projects do not have electric service installed until late in the process; therefore, the interior and surrounding areas are generally dark. The ability to see these tool and construction trailers is greatly impaired due to the dark conditions. Additionally, the areas surrounding these sites is usually wooded and undeveloped, allowing suspects to remain hidden until the opportunity arises for them to access the equipment, then retreat back into the dark areas for concealment.

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