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Why Understanding the Problem Is Crucial for Impact


By Shelly Scnhupp

Achieving impact is still a challenge for many nonprofits.  While we often point to inadequate funding or lack of marketing as the culprits, insufficient attention to program development practices that limit program effectiveness should also be considered.

Nonprofits accomplish their mission through programming.  Yet, when nonprofit executives were asked about their capacity challenges in a comprehensive 2020 study completed by UW-Milwaukee, program planning and development was nowhere to be seen among the top priorities. Marketing and technology, fund development, human resources and other areas of organizational management emerged as higher priorities.

Stronger programs begin with strong program development, and that starts with identifying the problem that a program is trying to solve.  This critical step enables programming to target and contribute to the reduction or prevention of the identified problem. Organizations need to know as much as they can about what causes the problem, who is most affected by it, the scope of the problem, and more. Knowing these elements will allow programming to be developed with a focus on impact and increase the likelihood of impact. Programing developed without this knowledge will miss the mark on clarifying impact needed as well as the programming that has the greatest likelihood of success.

The value of problem definition was recently demonstrated in our work with AWS Foundation in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Foundation offered a group of nonprofits a grant-funded program development opportunity to research, analyze, and, potentially, address a significant barrier that was preventing them from meeting their missions. The Foundation planned to engage local service providers to gain a new vantage point and address significant barriers facing people with disabilities in their communities. This was an invitation-only pilot that supported the funding region (NE Indiana) that AWS Foundation serves. The Foundation wanted to offer sufficient resources for established organizations to significantly increase the impact of their services. The Foundation recognized that deep analysis of the problems or barriers facing people with disabilities was a necessary first step. Nonprofits that were interested in engaging in this opportunity were required to first submit a request for how they would engage in six months of problem-focused research before being considered to submit a proposal to craft a solution.

The Foundation recognized that looking beyond their current work would be challenging in both time and resources and wanted to equip the nonprofits with the knowledge and capacity needed to do so.   Spectrum Nonprofit Services was engaged to offer training and one-on-one technical assistance to the nonprofits in problem analysis.

According to Joni Schmalzried, Chief Program Office at AWS Foundation, “We recognized how hard they (service providers) work and rarely have the opportunity to step back and look at things more deeply.”   Getting organizations to think about a mission-focused problem worth exploring was the first step and the primary reason Spectrum was engaged.  We worked with the organizations to clarify an issue that could benefit from deeper understanding and to remain focused on exploring the problem–crafting solutions would come later.

Following are questions we used to guide the organizations in preparing their proposals:

  1. What problem facing the target population have we or others been unable to address? Why?
  2. What do we already know about the problem? What else do we need to know in order to develop solutions?
  3. How do we know the problem exists? What evidence do we have? What evidence do we need?
  4. Have we or others tried to address this problem in the past? If not, why not? If yes, why was the problem not prevented, reduced or resolved?
  5. Are there persistent disparities in conditions among people with disabilities in our community? Are there certain groups among people with disabilities have not made as much progress as others?
  6. Do those we serve or try to serve face challenges that have been especially difficult to resolve? Do we know why?
  7. What is our capacity (time, expertise, relationships) to engage in deep problem analysis? What can we realistically do with existing staff, board or volunteers? What additional expertise would we need to secure?

Reflecting on the organizations that chose to participate, Schmalzried reported that the approach “was worth it” noting that all “learned so much more about the individuals they serve, their staff, families, and community.”  All were awarded funds to engage in problem-focused research, which led/or may lead to additional funds awarded to craft and deliver solutions. All of the organizations, according to Schmalzried, benefited from their participation.  Many gained new insights that led to making process, communication, and service delivery changes along the way.  “What they learned in the process was critical. The gift of time and resources to analyze process and practices will hopefully lead to ongoing impact” according to Schmalzried.

AWS Foundation’s approach is a great example of developing programming for impact.  Investing in analysis of problems by offering training and technical assistance in this area and then paying nonprofits to engage in barrier analysis to find new, high-impact solutions demonstrates AWS Foundation’s commitment to impact and the value of engaging in problem analysis as a program development activity.

For communities interested in taking an approach similar to that piloted by AWS Foundation, Schmalzried encourages them to “take the risk” and to consider that this work can happen on a smaller scale.  She notes that securing assistance outside the Foundation to help organizations (and the Foundation) with understanding problem analysis was critical.

Of course, not all nonprofits will have the opportunity to engage in program analysis to the extent offered by AWS Foundation.  Here are some steps that nonprofits can take on their own:

  • Regularly collect data that provide insights about the problems that mission focused constituents face. Are disparities getting better or worse? Are there sub-populations that are more greatly affected than others, and is this shifting?
  • Listen to constituents who participate in services. Previously unknown or minimized factors that contribute to the challenges they face may emerge. Listening to front-line, direct service staff may yield similar insights.
  • Challenge current thinking with the seven questions posed earlier. Learn about and engage board and staff in generative thinking. What is interfering with program participants’ ability to achieve impact?  What are we overlooking? Are we addressing the right problem?  Be sure to look for environmental issues that cause or exacerbate problems or serve as barriers to the people you serve.
  • Look for studies about the problem. This could that provide insights others have been able to uncover.


Problem analysis is essential for developing new programming that will contribute to the mission impact we want to achieve.  It is equally important for continuing services, to ensure nonprofit work remains relevant.  People change, along with the problems they face. If we truly want to program for impact, we must keep up with those changes.


Photo by Sonika Agarwal on Unsplash