Grant Writing: Answering the Question What Need Will You Meet?

Last week in What Foundation Reviewers Want to Know, Asked or Not we presented the eight questions grant reviewers want answered. Today, we discuss how to present the needs your proposal is describing.


Your needs statements are the crux of your proposal. What needs you choose to meet shapes your proposal’s stated goals, measurement of those goals, the program you implement to meet the goals, what accomplishments and community partnerships you highlight in the narrative, and what foundations you apply to. To get the funding, you must get your needs section right. Because it determines how I approach so many other parts of the proposal, the needs section of the grant is the first section I write.  


Lack of Funding is Not a Need


Foundations do not give to nonprofits because they need money. Foundations are not ATM’s dispensing money. Foundations are people making decisions about how they can best achieve impact. Foundations give money to nonprofits because they believe that, of all the applicants, the grant recipients will make the biggest, most sustainable, most financially responsible impact on solving the community problem outlined in their grant proposals. It is not money that makes an impact on a community problem. It is the way the money is used that makes an impact. And the way you use your money is encapsulated in your mission statement. Foundations give to fulfill mission, not balance a checkbook. It is not the need for money that motivates foundations to give. It is the impact reached in improving the human condition that motivates foundations to give.


Positioning your nonprofit in need of money also weakens your argument for funding. Who do you think review committees are going to fund? The applicants who can show financial strength or the ones talking about their financial weakness? A financially strong applicant, of course. Lack of funding is not a need.


Lack of a Program is Not a Need


In a related vein, lack of a program is not a need. Programs are organizational structures. Foundations want to impact people, not organizational structures. Organizational structures are in place to sustain organizational existence. Foundations are not interested in organizational sustenance. They are, however, interested in mission sustenance. The need you describe is related to the community and your organization’s impact on it. It is not the program you implement that is important. What is important is how much impact on a community need your agency is making by implementing that particular program. When it comes to describing need, the need is not about starting or sustaining a program. The need is about the people you serve.

How to Determine True Need

The true need you describe in your proposal is about people and communities. What outcome is your nonprofit trying to achieve? What underlying need are you meeting? To get at true need, ask, “Why are we doing this?” until you can’t anymore.

For example, why do you operate a food bank? Because people don’t have money for food. Why is that important? Because people go hungry. And why is that important? Because poor nutrition leads to chronic health problems. And chronic health problems require expensive health care interventions. And expensive health care interventions use more societal resources than operating a food bank.

Because poor nutrition stunts growth and development is another reason why you don’t want people to go hungry. Which leads to lower educational attainment. Which leads to lower income jobs. Which can mean having to make choices between which living expenses to pay and not pay. Which may mean not having enough food to eat.

Notice the needs I am describing are not about the food bank. The food bank is the program. The needs we are describing are about the needs of individuals and the community: chronic health issues, the cost of health care, income instability, cyclical poverty. What has more impact on you: “We need a food bank in our community, “ or “Through a food bank we can help people be heathier, attain income stability, decrease the societal costs of health care, and reduce poverty in our community”? Which statement do you think will make more of an impact on reviewers?

When you are describing need in the community, you also need to address why this particular community as opposed to others, community meaning both the population you serve and geographic area you operate in. Why do you serve this specific population in this given area? Are they the poorest? Are they the sickest? Do they have the highest unemployment rate? Do they consume the most resources? Notice we are asking questions about the people we serve in relation to the needs we have identified. When you describe why you are choosing to serve a particular segment of the community, make sure you explain that choice in relation to the primary needs you have identified. Remember, your proposal is probably one of hundreds a foundation receives. The reviewers are comparing your community’s needs to the others they look at. Put your request in context for them. Make it easy for them to see how much need in your community there really is. 

Documenting Needs in Your Narrative

When you write your needs statements, you can’t just write them and expect reviewers to believe them just because you stated them. You need to base your needs statements on facts substantiated by respected authorities and leaders in the field. Sourcing your data gives credibility and lends weight to the importance of what you are saying.

Your needs section is the place where you give statistics, research findings, and outcome data. Governmental agencies are good sources of data. The U.S. Census Bureau is your best friend in gathering demographic data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a good for health and disease data. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has a plethora of housing and income data. The Family and Youth Services Bureau, part of the Administration for Children and Families, provides research finding on  youth homelessnessadolescent pregnancy, and domestic violence. On a state level, your state’s crime bureau will have arrest and crime data. Your state’s education agency will have school and student test results data. The federal and state governments spend a lot of money on research and they collect data on the many grants they administer. Usually they are great resources for authoritative data.

Industry and professional groups are also well worth researching. For example, the Urban Institute is a good source for issues affecting urban areas, such as poverty, educational attainment and employment data. The National Alliance to End Homelessness provides homelessness and affordable housing data. The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities is a good source for developmental disability data. The National Education Association and its state chapters may good sources for student outcome data. The Chambers of Commerce sometimes have local business and economic data available through their sites. The Council for Nonprofits and their state affiliates shares data on the welfare of nonprofits. In your search for widely accepted data, try researching the professional groups and associations relating to the industry or field of which your nonprofit is a part.

You can often find data through papers put out by foundations too. For example, the Annie E. Casey Foundation publishes child welfare data.  The Pew Charitable Trusts share its research on contemporary political and civic issues. The Kresge Foundation publishes case studies on affordable housing. Gleaning information from the publications of the foundation you are applying to, if they have them, is a good strategy for presenting authoritative data.

Don’t forget the objective, hands-on data you can glean from your own nonprofit’s programs. There is nothing like having demographic data from the exact type of clients in the exact environments in which your grant programs will be implemented.  Data like that tells the reviewers exactly what needs, strengths, and obstacles the population you serve experiences. If you have specific objective evidence of your constituencies’ experiences in getting their needs met, by all means use it. Especially if you can compare your agency’s data to other authoritative data. Use whatever data you can to support the case for meeting the needs of your nonprofit’s clients. 

So, research, research, research. Get as much objective, authoritative, widely accepted data as you can.

Presenting Your Needs Data

When you present statistical data, make sure you do so in both actual numbers and percentages. You may round your numbers for easier reading, both the actual number and the percentages, but make sure you’re consistent in your rounding method. You want context around your numbers. Remember, reviewers will probably be reading hundreds of proposals. You want the program your nonprofit operates be able to be compared to other programs in other communities that other nonprofits operate. Reviewers need both actual numbers and percentages to be able to put the programs in perspective from one organization to another and from one community to another.  Having both numbers and percentages gives a more accurate picture of size and scope as opposed to using just one or the other.

Remember to source your statements. You want the foundation to know that credible authorities also see a need in your community. Don’t just say what the statistic or research finding is. State the source of information.

And avoid the ‘alphabet soup’ nonprofits are famous for. You may know what NEA, NIH, or FYSB mean, or whatever other acronyms you may commonly use, but chances are the reviewers don’t. Reading through a proposal of ‘alphabet soup’ makes it hard to follow and difficult to read. That not something you want your reviewers to feel. You want the reviewers to be able readily understand the information you are presenting. So, avoid the alphabet soup. 

The Importance of Matching Missions

The need your nonprofit meets is expressed in your organization’s mission. The needs foundations want to meet are expressed in their missions. Your success in receiving funding from foundations is dependent upon your ability to match your nonprofit’s mission with the foundations’ missions. Don’t apply to foundations where the two missions don’t match. Only apply to foundations where the missions match. There is no sense in spending your time preparing applications that don’t have a chance of being funded. Your time is too precious. 

You also want to maintain your agency’s reputation among the foundation community. Foundation funders are pretty tight group. They are often members of the same industry and professional organizations. Sometimes they have common board members. They do know each other. Information about individual nonprofits gets around. You do not want to be known as the nonprofit who doesn’t do it’s homework. Maintain a good reputation. Do your homework. Match your nonprofit’s mission to those of the foundations to which you apply.

Your needs statements shape the rest of your grant proposal. It is important that the needs section of your proposal’s narrative talks about individual and community needs as opposed to organizational and financial needs. To spend your time effectively, match your agency’s mission to the foundations you apply to. 

Wrapping It Up

  • Your needs statements are the crux of your grant proposal.
  • The need you are meeting is about the individuals and community your serve, not the funding you need or program you want to implement.
  • Your underlying need is embedded in your mission statement. Ask, “Why do we do this?’ until you can’t anymore.
  • Put your needs in context for the reviewers.
  • Provide objective evidence that substantiates your statements.
  • Match the mission your nonprofit to those of the foundations to which you apply.

If you would like to contact me with your questions, write to me at joanne@joanneoppelt,com and I will get back to you.

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