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Write a Problem Statement Using This Simple Template

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

Updated 12.9.2023

You’ve got a problem: you need to write a problem statement. 

A problem statement is the opening act for a business proposal, a research project, or a grant application.

Its job is to persuade readers that there’s one very specific lack, gap, difficulty, obstacle, hindrance, barrier, or obstruction … and it’s one that can be solved.

Otherwise, you wouldn’t need to write a problem statement. Instead, you’d write a rant.

  • In business, a problem statement defines a specific issue that’s preventing you from meeting your production goals.
  • In academia, a problem statement defines a specific issue to be addressed by a study.
  • In nonprofit circles, a problem statement (sometimes called a need statement) defines a specific issue facing a particular group of people.

Regardless of the problem statement’s niche, the immediate issue is distillation. All the problem statement’s moving parts — the issue and why it must be addressed, a case story to illustrate it, backup evidence to prove the problem is real, your proposed solution — can make the prospect of writing one overwhelming. If you present a robust case, the reviewers will want to read the rest of your proposal or solution with enthusiasm. If you’re boring or passionless, your chances plummet. No pressure here!

Problem statement template with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter #WritingTips #WritingFormulas

A problem statement starts with a summary statement

An effective problem statement gets to the point right away, as in at the top of the document. This is true whether the problem statement is a standalone document or a simple paragraph, and regardless of word count limit, character count parameters, or page length guidelines. If the reviewer reads only the first sentence, can he grasp the problem?

Yes! You can summarize the issue clearly in just one or two sentences. I’ve done so many times by using a template that I’ve created. The template allows you to write a problem statement summary that’s customized for your proposal.

This summary statement acts a lot like an article hook. It pulls in the reader so she keeps reading. Like the hook, a problem statement is concise and to the point. It grabs the reviewer’s attention and instills a sense of urgency. When your opening problem statement summary is compelling, you show the reviewer what’s in it for her. She’s enticed by the chance to understand how to solve this problem. You’ve set her up to read the rest of your problem statement.

Use a simple template to write a problem statement

Let’s say you’re preparing a problem statement for a grant proposal. You write, “We need resources to provide food for local children on weekends.” Your problem, you say, is that you need resources.

But that’s not the real problem. That’s your solution — funds that will allow you to continue to implement your weekend feeding program.

The real problem is that a third of your local children live in poverty and they are hungry. There’s not enough food at home. These children are enrolled in the National School Lunch Program and receive breakfast and lunch each weekday. But what do they eat on the weekends? Hunger leads to health problems, stunted growth, lack of concentration, poor school performance, and a host of emotional issues.

So in order to get started with writing your summary problem statement, ask Who, What, Where, When, and Why questions:

  • Who is affected? (local children)
  • Where is it happening? (throughout our county)
  • What is happening to them? (the children are hungry)
  • When is it happening? (every time school is out of session, including weekends and holidays)
  • Why is this an issue? (families and children live below the poverty line and can’t afford enough food)

Now you can use those pieces of information to complete this problem statement template:

[Who is affected and Where] +

[What’s happening to them and When] +

[Why this is an issue]

  • Who is affected and where are they? 1500 children. They live in our county.
  • What is happening to them and when? They live below the poverty line (and have done so for some time with no end in sight).
  • Why is this an issue: Children in poverty aren’t getting enough to eat when school is out.

Now, simply fill in the blanks. You may need to tweak your end result. But you’ll have a solid start.

Problem Statement: More than 1500 county children + live below the poverty line + and aren’t getting enough to eat on weekends.

The beauty of the template is its clarity. In just one sentence, you’ve laid out the major need. You’ll add additional information as you write a problem statement document by revealing additional details about who you’re trying to help, presenting evidence that the problem is real, giving real-life examples, explaining why the problem is urgent, and outlining your solution.

But the summary template allows you to distill your problem to its essence. You’re able to get to the point right out the gate with an opening lead that grabs attention. Then, as you write the rest of the supporting material in the problem statement, you can keep your content focused on explaining the rest of the story.

Start with the template. Your problem — distilling your issue into a few words? It’s solved.

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