Bids and proposals

How to write a compelling needs statement for a grant proposal

15 minute read

Imagine you’ve got a new grant proposal to write. And it really matters to you. Now, imagine taking your seat in the cinema or curling up in an armchair with a new novel.

You may feel these things don’t immediately have much in common. But you’re so much more likely to find yourself pulled into any kind of story if the opening scene is a real powerhouse. At the very least, it has to somehow hook your interest from the beginning.

Remember this when you are sitting down to apply for funding for what you see as a vital, deserving project.

It can be tempting to dive straight in with a description of what you want to do. But the reader won’t be interested in any of that if you don’t first describe what’s happening at the moment and why that’s a problem.

So, you need to kick off your proposal with a compelling statement about the current situation and how it will persist and develop – that is, unless you can do something to fix things. This statement can provide the framework for everything that follows and is possibly the single most important element of any funding proposal.

But how can you paint that picture of the status quo as vividly as possible? Read on to find out.


'Problem statement’ or ‘needs statement’?

Before we go any further, we need to iron out a slight terminology wrinkle: are we talking here about writing needs statements (or ‘statement of need’) or problem statements? Well, we’re talking about either or both. They’re essentially one and the same thing.

There is a useful pole star to follow when you’re choosing between the two possible section titles – assuming you have the choice. Just ask yourself the following question: are there obvious and direct human beneficiaries to your proposed project? If the answer is yes, then it’s a needs statement you’ll be writing. If not – for example, if it’s about an environmental issue that needs tackling – then it’s a problem statement.

For the purposes of this piece and for the sake of simplicity, I’ll be sticking to the term ‘needs statement’. But everything we’re talking about here applies either way.


Planning your needs statement

Writing a statement of need is no different to any other business writing challenge in that it’s crucial to plan properly first. Think through and establish as clearly as possible what you want to achieve. Even more importantly, think about what your reader – the funder – will want to see when reading your needs statement.

You need to put yourself in the funder’s shoes, and the easiest way of doing that is to familiarise yourself with their website and all of their strategy documents first. Check under ‘guidelines’, ‘themes’, ‘programmes’, ‘priorities’ or ‘strategy’ on their website to make sure you have a clear understanding of what their particular goals and drivers look like. Of course, you should have already done this when deciding whether to apply. But it’s important to refresh your memory at this point.

An easy way to ensure you’re considering the funder’s aims when you dive into writing your needs statement is to have their programme objectives in front of you as you write. Jot them down on a sticky note (real or virtual) and keep them in your eyeline.

The natural tendency is to include as many points as you can think of about the problem your project will be tackling. But it’s better to approach the task with the aim of marrying two things together: your beneficiaries’ needs and the funder’s needs.

So, let’s imagine the need you want to express is for a housing solution to help address local rates of homelessness. But you happen to know that the funder you have in your sights directs most of their funding towards tackling domestic violence as well as helping to provide housing. In that situation, it would probably make sense to re-centre the focus of your needs statement on homelessness arising from domestic abuse. You can then also cite examples accordingly.

Remember: the ideal shape for a needs statement blends together the needs of your beneficiaries with the needs of your readers.


What to include

There is no single, mandatory list of ingredients for a needs statement, but these pointers will help you ensure you’re including the vital, compelling elements.


Use evidence to do the work for you

Obviously, your main objective is to outline the problem or need. And you have to make sure you can do this in a way that moves your potential funder and makes them want to take action. But the harsh (if obvious) reality is that it isn’t enough just to express your own opinion on the degree of need or extent of the problem. You need to be able to support that opinion with carefully selected evidence.

You can do this in two ways. First, establish the broader picture by including recent trends and future projections. Centre this kind of evidence on striking quantitative data. If you are referencing data from other people’s research – which you almost certainly will be – make sure you cite your sources. Second, back up this big-picture view by zooming in on one or two individual human stories. Use carefully selected quotes and case studies to do this.

The big-picture data will help to give your proposal a strong, scientific dimension, and the individual stories will engage the reader on a more human level. If you can, give equal weight to both kinds of evidence.


Describe what will happen without more funding now

Later in your proposal, you’ll want to talk about the positive developments your project will bring. But in your needs statement it’s more important to highlight how things will get worse without the funder’s support. Doing this can be even more compelling. It also more clearly makes the case that the current position is truly a problem.

You’ll find it easier to be more direct and include a stronger element of urgency in this way as well. For example: ‘Current projections indicate that in the next year a further 5,000 households in this location will slide into fuel poverty without increased support.’ This framing tells the funder that allowing current problems to continue will lead to the need for even more funding. The message you want to send is that next year is no good.


Avoid focusing on your own needs

It’s important to avoid focusing on your organisation’s needs. For example, don’t be tempted to mention your finances at this point. But you should make sure the project you’re proposing is clearly aligned with your organisation’s mission.

A strong statement of need will focus on the wider context in which you will be operating (if you manage to secure the funding you’re asking for). So, do say things like, ‘This is a sector that desperately needs more targeted support in several key areas.’ Don’t say things like, ‘Our organisation needs to achieve several key results in the next two years.’


Highlight secondary impacts

When you are painting a picture of need and the difference your proposed project will make, don’t stop at the immediate, primary differences. Funders always like to hear about longer-term solutions that can bring about a domino effect of positive change.

So, say you want to portray how a certain group of people are in need of a particular educational intervention, like a numeracy support programme. In this case, don’t make do with only describing the immediate educational benefits this would bring. Scale up the positive effect by helping the reader to see what knock-on effects your project will also be likely to have. For example, describe the new skills the beneficiaries would acquire in the job market as a result – which would, in turn, improve their employment prospects.

You can then use this chain of benefits to shape how you initially describe the need you’ll be addressing. Make it a clear case of cause and effect: ‘Young adults are missing out on employment opportunities and are finding it hard to manage their financial affairs as a direct result of poor numeracy skills. Helping this group to improve those skills will therefore act as a key to unlock their ability to find jobs and cope with the rising cost of living.’


Use the right amount of jargon

You’ll also need to find the sweet spot between technical, ‘sector-speak’ jargon and plain English. Some people feel you should avoid jargon at all costs, but you do want to sound as well-informed and familiar with the technical landscape as possible. Jargon (or technical language) is also useful in its place – you are speaking the reader’s specialist language.

As with everything else, it’s about finding the right balance. Use technical terms where they are appropriate and helpful: this will help to reinforce your credibility in the field. But between the occasional technical terms, try to lean more towards plain English that everyone can effortlessly understand. Here are a few golden rules to keep in mind:

  • Try to keep your average sentence length to around 17 words – some longer, some shorter.
  • A short, punchy sentence is a good way to emphasise a point.
  • Make sure that each sentence only conveys one main idea.
  • Try to favour short words over long ones.
  • As much as possible, aim to use active verbs, as they are always more engaging for the reader.

On the last point, you may find it especially challenging to use the active voice when you’re covering technical content. But doing so will make the technical content easier to absorb. Try and at least make the active voice your default setting.


What’s the best structure?

So, we’ve seen you’ll need a blend of:

  • beneficiary needs and funder needs
  • high-level evidence and local stories
  • ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ improvements
  • technical language and plain English.

But what is the best structure?

Well, there is no prescribed formula that you have to stick to. But a good order of elements is as follows:

Start with a reflection of the current position. Make it clear why this can’t continue (in other words, why it’s a problem). Always try to make sure your kick-off sentence is a strong one and will stick in the reader’s mind.

Next, make sure you can support this opening statement of the current situation with some evidence. It often works best to flag the big picture with quantitative trends and projections and follow that with local case studies to illustrate the degree of the problem in more human terms.

Then you can move towards describing what will happen in the future if nothing changes (and no more funding becomes available). This adds a sense of urgency to your proposal. From there it should be a natural step to describe briefly what changes need to happen to avoid the worst future scenario.

This should then lead easily into the next section of your proposal, where you’ll give an account of what you propose to do about it and why you are well placed to deliver those things.


Example of a needs statement

Now we’ve covered the elements that an effective needs (or problem) statement should include, let’s look at an example that illustrates this.

There will be no hope of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change without healthy, growing tropical rainforests. A growing proportion of global deforestation is taking place as a result of land clearances to produce so-called ‘soft’ commodities such as cattle, soy, palm, coffee and cocoa. Much of this deforestation is carried out illegally and recklessly by large public companies with the backing of global banks and other investors.

These soft commodities are important staples of modern life. They have always been important to local populations in tropical regions, feeding communities and providing smallholder farmers with livelihoods to sustain their families. Tropical commodities are a major and growing economic sector with industrial scales of production and global supply chains. Palm oil, for example, is present in almost 50% of products found in British supermarkets. But vulnerable smallholders continue to comprise the vast bulk of production for most of these commodities.

The scale of this problem is huge. Tropical deforestation amounted to 12 million hectares in 2019. Roughly a third of this damage – affecting an area approximately the size of Greece – took place in areas of mature rainforest that are especially important for biodiversity and carbon storage. Over two-thirds of this loss was driven by agriculture, of which commercial agriculture and, in particular, commodity production accounted for approximately 40%. This forest loss was responsible for nearly a tenth of worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the year.

More than a billion people depend on forests for their food, water, culture and livelihoods. Indigenous communities are particularly dependent, as are women and children, who suffer the most from deforestation.

Leni is a 43-year-old mother of two, living in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province – an area her community has inhabited for centuries. A little over ten years ago, lush forests with evergreen fruit-bearing trees surrounded Leni’s home. But now, she and her family have little land to farm and no forest in which to forage after the land was cleared to make way for an oil palm plantation. Leni puts it like this: ‘Before, our lives were simple – not rich, but enough. Since oil palm came, there is more suffering. I can’t feed my family. I have a baby. I must put food on the table every day. How do I do that when my husband and I are not working?’

Without a change of direction, the problem is set to get worse. At current rates of acceleration, consumption practices will come at a huge environmental cost. We will see increased deforestation and loss of biodiversity as well as local pollution and GHG emissions as the agricultural frontier expands.

More than half of Earth’s rainforests have already been lost due to the human demand for wood and arable land. Rainforests that once grew over 14% of the land on Earth now cover only about 6%. And if current deforestation rates continue, these critical habitats could disappear from the planet completely within the next hundred years.

In the last 40 years, the Amazon has had approximately 17% of its total area deforested, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). Scientists have warned that further deforestation could push the Amazon rainforest beyond a tipping point where the moisture and carbon balance of much of the Amazon biome would become broken. According to some studies, this tipping point would be reached when 20–25% of the forested area is lost to deforestation.

Every year we see more evidence that meeting global climate goals will require radical changes in tropical commodity supply chains. But multiple sources of research show the threats to production in these supply chains are still not reflected in investors’ analysis of financial performance.

As long as investor awareness of these risks remains low, short-term investment decisions will persist. Deforestation will continue, moving us closer to a climate crisis tipping point. Ultimately, investors need to believe they will make more money in the long term by investing in sustainable agriculture and land use now. We therefore need to expose investors to the growing evidence base to help redirect their investment strategies.

Our organisation is in a unique position to achieve this and we propose tackling this problem with the three strands of work outlined below.


How long should a needs statement be?

People often ask, ‘What’s the ideal or expected length for a needs statement?’ There really is no single answer to this question, or at least no ideal number of words or paragraphs.

A useful rule of thumb is to aim for around 20% of the total document if you are producing a proposal from scratch (rather than completing an application form). So, if you’re writing a five-page proposal, then the first page would be a reasonable length for your statement of need.

But, if you’re filling out a prescriptive application form, there’s a whole spectrum of word limits that the funder could impose. Sometimes you may have to articulate the need in just a few sentences, if space is tight.

The funder could even ask for a single sentence expression of need. But don’t panic – this is also perfectly possible! In that case, still kick off with the current position, then find a concise way of expressing why the situation will become a worse problem in the future without more funding. For example:

Research shows growing deforestation from production of ‘soft’ commodities like soy and palm is pushing climate change to climate crisis, while investors seem blind to the long-term environmental catastrophe this short-term focus is fuelling.

Try to resist the urge to write a monster sentence in order to accommodate a lot of detail: you’ll lose the impact of the sentence the longer it gets. Do your best to keep to the usual 35-word limit and use the punchiest points you can.

You may not have room to cite lots of compelling quantitative data or showcase local quotes and case studies. However, it’s still worth including a phrase like ‘recent evidence shows …’. You may have room to expand on this later in the proposal or in a longer, second-stage application. It might at least prompt the funder to come back to you to ask what specific evidence you are referring to – so make sure you do have some in mind!


Prioritise your needs statement

At this point you should be clear on the essential components of a strong problem statement or statement of need. It really is worth taking extra care over how you start your proposal (or answer the ‘need’ question in an application form). Clearly understanding the need from the start will make the funder want to read on and learn more about the project you’re proposing as a solution. But, if you lose them at the start, they may never get that far.

The statement of need is the most powerful weapon you have in your armoury when writing a proposal. It’s worth making sure it’s razor sharp.

Good luck and may you nail that next proposal.

Want to equip your team of fundraisers with the skills to write grant proposals that win over funders? Take a look at our Grant proposal writing course or get in touch to talk about your needs.

Image credit: Ody_Stocker / Shutterstock



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Richard is a proposal writer and fundraising expert with over 20 years’ experience in the charity sector. He's also one of our specialist business-writing trainers.

His fundraising career has seen him engage with individual donors, government funding agencies and international foundations. This experience honed his ability to communicate specific messages to a wide range of audiences – a skill which has helped him lead teams to win multiple seven-figure bids.

He shares his experience and insights in the training room and here on the Emphasis Knowledge Hub.

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