The Right Need

Need is one of those fraught words. It means “a condition or situation in which something is required or wanted,” but for some that translates into “something lacking “ while for others it is, rather, “an object of desire.”In our grantwriting classes (, Bo Morton, my co-teacher, and I admonish, “A lack is not a need.” Just because you don’t have something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you need it. It especially doesn’t follow that a funder will think it sufficient to support. One of our students put it this way: “If I work 10 miles from my home and I don’t have a car, I might think that my need is for an automobile. But actually, my need is for transportation—which might be a car, or public transportation, or even a bike.” Riffing on that, another student commented, “So I need a car, but I want a Maserati…. Both have a point, but it’s a point that highlights a problem we often face in the nonprofit world—defining the right need. In fundraising, we call that need the case. Whatever you call it, framing it correctly will mean the difference between getting a gift or a grant, or not. Recently, I was working with a client on his organization’s case statement. He brilliantly defined the organization’s mission, the work it does, the successes it has enjoyed. And then he got stuck. At the need—the case for support. “What we need,” he said to me, “is money for salaries. But who is going to get excited about that?” Beyond the employee, who indeed? But the salaries (or the computers, or any of the other tools you use in your work) are not the need. That’s the need that you see when you only look in the mirror. It is your need and that is not something that will resonate with your supporters. Instead of thinking of how the organization accomplishes its work (or how it will implement a program), focus on the problem you are solving or the issue you are addressing. Look at it from your clients’ perspectives. If you feel your need is to raise money in order to pay for salaries (and that is probably a very real necessity), think about what it is that your clients get from the work done by those whose salaries you want to raise. OK, that sentence is a little more complicated than it needs to be. Let’s parse it. Start with your mission. What do you do and—here’s an important factor—why are you doing it? What is the situation now? What do you hope it will look like when your work is done? That’s what your need is—support so you can change a situation, solve a problem, provide assistance. Salaries, facilities, equipment, etc, are all just tools of your work. Just as you don’t read a book for each individual word, but rather for the story the book unfolds, your supporters are contributing not for the individual parts of the process but for the results you get.

Janet Levine consults with nonprofits, helping them to define their unique strengths and build on those. Learn more at