Most grant makers require you to provide a needs statement as part of your grant proposal.
And since “need” tends to look quite a bit different for an arts and culture nonprofit than for a nonprofit specializing in things like say…health or human services, this can often be the trickiest part of putting together a compelling proposal. (Especially if you’re newer to grant writing.)
Today I want to help with this process a bit by breaking down what a needs assessment is and how to create one for an arts/culture organization that gets to the heart of what your programming does and helps grant makers to see its value.
First up: what is a needs statement?
A needs statement typically outlines why your organization’s services, programming, or project is needed in the community and/or amongst the specific group you serve. It should clearly outline that need as well as why your org and its programs are best suited to filling that need. And then it should back all of this up with relevant data, statistics, best practices, and/or examples of past impact.
Why is it important
If you can’t demonstrate that there’s a need for what you do, then it’s very unlikely you’ll get many funders to award you a grant. This seems really obvious, but there are many organizations who still rely on funders to somehow see the intrinsic need for the arts or for cultural institutions. But you really shouldn’t make that assumption. You should outline it for them in a logical, well-thought-out way that would make the case even to someone who isn’t an “arts lover”.
Ok, so what is the need?
This is where things can get tricky because technically, no one needs museums or art galleries or symphonies in order to fulfill the baseline needs of daily life. Because the arts are often seen as a “luxury” you need to make your case another way.
In my opinion, the best way to do this is to take a multi-fold approach focusing on the following in relation to your specific program and arts/culture genre:
- Show research, data, and/or examples demonstrating how programs like these or the presence of these types of arts/culture experiences in peoples’ lives provide better life outcomes (the NEA, the American Alliance of Museums, and Americans for the Arts have some great research and data resources to get you started).
- Give examples of qualitative data, both from other organizations/entities as well as from within your own organization showing how this program or type of offering has improved outcomes or made an impact. A good example might be quotes from program participants, stories about how your program changed a life, etc.
What solution are you offering and why is your solution well-suited to solve the problem or fill the need?
This is where you need to tie all the research, data, and quotes you cited earlier into the needs statement by showing how these resources have informed the program or project your organization is offering. Show how you created or altered the program based upon other successful models with track records of proven impact. If this program isn’t a new one, this is also a good place to talk about any previous track record of impact and success the program has (assuming this isn’t asked for specifically elsewhere in the application).
Why is your organization the best one to offer this solution?
You should ideally be able to demonstrate why your organization in particular is the best one to offer this program. Why are you better suited than other nonprofit or companies on the local/regional/national scene? Here are some examples of things you could use to demonstrate your org’s particular ability to offer an impactful program:
- No other orgs in your area are offering anything like this.
- Or if they are, they aren’t as effective as they could be and you’re making a significant improvement.
- Your org is widely recognized for it’s prowess or ability and you are bringing that to bear on this program.
- Your org can do this efficiently and cost-effectively.
- Your org has the connections or support necessary to offer this program effectively and sustainably.
- Your org has the internal capacity to offer this program effectively.
- Your org is offering this program with the long-term aim of making it into a national model.
- Your org has a track record of offering effective programs serving the same need, population, etc.
Don’t waste time making a huge case for the intrinsic value of the arts. Get specific.
Again, if you try to appeal only to some vague notion of the arts as being a lofty expression of human nobility that we simply can’t do without, you’re going to lose some funders who might otherwise happily give you an award. So when you craft your need statement, make sure you go back through and look for opportunities to get specific. Get specific about the needs in your community, why this approach is better than others for your community, why your org and its staff are the absolute best bet to fill this need, and why this particular type of program/experience/opportunity makes a difference in peoples’ lives. And further to that last point: don’t just talk about how people think it’s wonderful. Did it open other doors for them? Did it help them improve academically? Did it affect other parts of their life?
Seriously. Get specific.
Don’t overstate the problem.
It’s really easy to think that when you’re talking about need the best thing to do would be to make it sound like you are addressing a dire situation that, if you aren’t funded, would be disastrous. But again, in most cases arts and culture isn’t a life or death situation. We aren’t giving shelter to the homeless population, lifting families out of poverty, or providing healthcare to the uninsured.
Don’t insult the intelligence of your grant reviewers by acting otherwise.
State the need as it exists and your plan for addressing it and making life better. Do it in plain language that isn’t fraught with overly emotional calls to action. You can absolutely still get your point across without sounding like Chicken Little and if you’ve done your research to approach funders with aligned interests who want to fund arts and culture nonprofits, you’ll do just fine. (You have done your research, right?)
Back up all your assertions with data, statistics, and/or examples.
I said it earlier, but I want to say it again because it’s important. If you are going to state that youth orchestras help produce better academic outcomes for participating students then where's your data to back that up? If you assert that access to arts experiences/venues translates to better economic mobility in the neighborhoods in which they are located, then you better have some numbers to that effect. Don’t skip this part! The data is out there. It just requires you to do a little legwork to go track it down.
To wrap things up, here’s a little outline with headings to help you organize a thorough needs statement.
The blanks are where you would fill in the name of your program, the type of offering or experience you’re proposing, etc.
- The need in our community for _____________.
- Outline the need.
- Use data and sources to back up the fact that it exists and why.
- Why ________ changes lives.
- Present data, research, or examples of best practices/models that back up why a certain approach to this need works well.
- Our solution.
- Outline your specific solution/program
- Outline exactly what you plan to achieve.
- (Organization Name) is ready and able to fill this need.
- Detail why your org is the best one to offer this solution/program
- Demonstrate your org’ positioning as an expert by detailing how you’ve adapted best practices, models, or conclusions from existing research and adapted them to your specific community or population.
- Why funding is needed.
- What will funding achieve?
- What will you achieve with this funding that would otherwise be reduced or not as likely to happen this season?
- How will it impact your patrons/students/participants/staff if you receive this award?
I hope this gives you some practical insight into how to create a killer needs statement that gets your point across and actually helps you win funding. If you have additional suggestions for writing a great needs statement or questions about specific parts of crafting needs statements, drop your thoughts in the comments! I will read and make sure to answer.