Defining the problem addressed by a nonprofit organization, philanthropist, or policymaker is an essential first step in designing a strategy that can have a social impact. It is common to go through multiple iterations of refining your problem statement.
The following steps will help you develop a well-formed problem statement:
Identify the intended beneficiaries.
Identify who they are and in what locales (ranging from local to global) they reside.
If you have more than one group of beneficiaries, ask if they have different and possibly conflicting interests. If so, can you prioritize whom your solution will focus on?
Make sure that you understand the beneficiaries’ interests and needs. It is almost always valuable to seek their views.
2. Avoid hidden and dubious empirical assumptions.
Examine your problem statement to identify empirical assumptions. Test whether the empirical assumptions are accurate:
Identify the source of your assumptions.
Look for scientific or social science evidence about the issue.
Listen to beneficiaries’ experiences and observe their behavior.
Seek information from reputable organizations that support and oppose your assumptions.
3. Minimize solutions in the problem description.
Try to avoid implicit solutions in your statement of the problem. The problem statement should be sufficiently broad to leave open a range of solutions and not foreclose any plausible ones.
4. Get to the heart of the problem.
Use an inquiry process by repeatedly asking, “Why is this important?” and other questions until you reach a fundamental objective. Engage in the inquiry process through a conversation with a colleague.
5. Describe the ideal world if the problem were solved.
Even when it is impossible as a practical matter to achieve the ideal world, describing it will raise your sights and help ensure that your actual solutions come as close to the ideal as possible.
6. Learn from others before you begin to solve the problem.
You are probably not the first person or organization trying to solve this problem, so it would be wise to discover who else is tackling the problem, what you can learn from them, and whether it would be advantageous to collaborate. You can benefit from others’ failures as well as their successes.
7. Understand the causes of the problem.
It is essential to understand the causes of the problem (a) to open up a range of possible solutions, (b) to ensure that any solutions are not premised on erroneous empirical assumptions about causes, and later (c) to help identify the beneficiaries’ needs. If you are mistaken about the causes of the problem, your understanding of the beneficiaries’ needs may be incorrect, and your solutions may be ineffective.