Problem Statement

The problem statement in a proposal is key—it’s the reason for the proposal’s existence.  In addition to the problem itself, problem statements may include brief references to causes and effects of the problem (although causes are often discussed in the background). Whatever type of information you decide is appropriate for your problem statement, make sure that you state the problem clearly and directly, keeping the focus on that problem. Don’t bring in extraneous information—your goal is to help your reader identify the problem, understand the need to take action, and lay the foundation for your proposed solution.  Think of a problem statement as a stand-alone section that offers the main reason why you are proposing an action.

Sample Problem Statements

Read the following samples, written by a community group in a small city to the city’s mayor and council, requesting action on dealing with a growing homeless population.  As you read, identify characteristics which problem statements fully effective and less effective.  Which problem statement you think is the most effective, and why?

problem statement #1

As discussed in the background above, the the problem the community has with dealing with the many homeless on its streets is a difficult one to address.  On one hand, the community wants to help those in need.  On the other, the community is a popular tourist destination, not only in the summer but all year round, and the homeless population in main business areas, some of whom approach pedestrians for handouts, deters tourists and ultimately harms our business community, the people who pay taxes that support services for the homeless.  It’s imperative that we do something to address this issue, because the problem seems to be increasing.

problem statement #2

The increase in the homeless population in our community has caused a number of problems: lack of adequate shelter space and resources to serve that population, an increase in reports of homeless who are obviously under the influence approaching pedestrians and asking for money, an increasingly upset group of downtown merchants, and an increasingly upset group of volunteers who work at and support services for the homeless.

problem statement #3

Homelessness has been increasing in our city.  In 20XX, approximately .1% of our 25,000 population, or 25 persons, were identified as homeless who consistently stayed within the city.  However in just two years, in 20XX, that 1% has increased to .5%, or 125 homeless persons who stay consistently within the city.  The increase has happened for a number of reasons, including the closing of a shelter in a nearby community and the openness of our community to creating services for homeless.  However, the increase has caused problems for many downtown businesses, who rely on tourists to support the local economy.  The Merchants’ Organization reports an increase in customers’ negative reactions and comments, and observes that sales are being affected.  The problem is how to serve all populations – homeless, local merchants, local residents, tourists – with respect, finding a way to meet everyone’s needs.

Analysis of Problem Statements

Problem Statement #1

Problem Statement #1 is not an effective problem statement.  Although the statement makes it clear that there is a problem, the information is general.  The first sentence relies on information in a previous background or introduction section, so the problem statement does not stand alone.  The middle portion of the problem section does not provide specifics about the problem. The last sentence makes a general claim that there is a problem, but does not lay the groundwork for any particular solution.

Problem Statement #2

Problem Statement #2 is not an effective problem statement. It offers fuller information than the first problem statement, but it offers so much information that the problem is diffused.  As a reader, you can’t tell if the proposal will focus on providing adequate shelter, dealing with inebriated persons on a public street, dealing with panhandling on a public street, supporting merchants, or dealing with shelter volunteers.

Problem Statement #3

Problem Statement #3 is the most effective problem statement of the three samples.  There is enough detail in the data provided to establish that there is a problem. The detail provided is just enough, as fuller detail can be provided in the Background/Introduction section or later in the proposal.  There’s a brief explanation of the reasons for the problem which, again, is enough for a problem statement.  And even though different constituencies are mentioned, they lead into the last sentence, which brings focus by stating directly that the problem is how to serve all populations with respect. This sample can stand alone as a statement of problem, so if it’s read first, before the introduction or background, the reader can understand the problem being presented.


Remember that problem statements need to:

  • focus on a specific problem, with just enough detail to establish that problem
  • stand alone
  • lay the groundwork for the solution

You may want to look at George Mason University’s page on Problem Proposals. The Problem Description section contains a chart on how to structure a problem statement.  Note that this structure may or may not be useful for a particular proposal that you are writing, but it is helpful in stressing that a problem statement does have its own, internal logic, however brief that statement may be.

Try It #1

Read the following problem statement:

Proposal for Creating a County Fire Investigation Team


The general municipal law requires the fire chief as part of his duties to determine the cause of every fire. The majority of the chiefs of volunteer fire departments, while they do an excellent job of extinguishing fires, are not trained in fire cause determination. At the present time, the only organization available in the county to complete fire investigations not meeting requirements to call in O.F.P.C. is the sheriff’s department, who cannot always investigate immediately due to their own workload. Investigators of the sheriff’s department, whether on duty or on overtime, would not need to investigate non-crime-related fires if another resource of trained fire investigators were available.

What is the problem?

a. The fire chiefs need training in fire investigation.

b. The fire dept. has to wait too long for the sheriff’s dept. to complete the investigations.

c. all of the above

d. none of the above


Try It #2

You are a supervisor in a company.  You have noted that employee morale is not good as a result of re-structuring the organization.  Employees in your department have made unofficial comments to you about their new roles, responsibilities, and locations, and you know that this attitude is pervasive from talking with other supervisors in other departments in the organization. You are seeing lowered output of work and increased absenteeism which you attribute to the lowered morale.

How can you address this issue via a proposal to your department head, in a way that doesn’t reflect badly on corporate decisions to re-structure, since you will be asking for time and funds to do some team-building and re-training?