What is the best solution to the problem?

“We will be known by the problems we solve.” –Jeff Shinabarger

I ask this question as if requires a specific and empirical response. Unfortunately, these problems are incredibly complex and the solutions can be equally intricate. You can research and plan all you want, but sometimes you discover problems during your pilot. And yet, even worse, some problems with your solution may not become apparent until you’re at scale. And, worst of all, we may solve problems in this generation that creates different problems for the next. I don’t think that means we should stop trying or feel defeated, but we should question everything and do our best not to do harm while doing good.

For 50 years, people believed the problem in Africa was poor governance, poor infrastructure, poor education, and poor economic opportunity. So, in our Western attempt to evangelize Africa, we went in and did everything for the people. We built houses, schools, and churches. We distributed clothes, food, medical supplies, and cash. That generation genuinely believed they were solving a problem with the best solution possible. Undoubtedly, lives and eternities were saved. God can use our most well-intentioned but misguided efforts for good. But, today, nonprofits like CARE for AIDS are dealing with the problems created by that period. Our clients want to be paid to attend our program, they want us to market and sell their goods for them, and they want us to scholarship their kids to go to school. Some may shake their heads because of that entitlement, but we are to blame. That opportunism and resourcefulness is how people in Africa survive. We only enabled that behavior by our past interventions.

In our pilot, CARE for AIDS did harm by offering loans to a select group of clients. Those loans eventually became grants because we didn’t have the systems or staff to collect the repayments. It also created dissention and distrust within the group. Those who did not receive loans thought and spoke negatively about the program hurting our influence in the community. We have all tried solutions that were met with mixed, if not negative, results. Thankfully, our 3,000 clients today are receiving the best care we know how to provide.

Here are some questions to answer when thinking the solution to choose:

Can this solution be implemented locally without the long-term involvement of an external organization?

Does this solution engage local resources (people, capital, leadership, knowledge)?

Can we pilot this program to test and prove its effectiveness?

Is the impact of this solution verifiable?

Is there a way to use technology to make this solution easier, more effective, or more affordable?

What will be the ongoing needs both from inside and outside the community to continue its operations?

What is the long-term impact of this on the community?

What problem am I trying to solve?

“A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.” –Charles Kettering


When I made my first trip to Kenya when I was 19 years old, I was clueless. But, I believe that ignorance was a gift. I had no prescriptions or preconceptions about what the problem was in Kenya. I only knew that HIV/AIDS was deadly and devastating to families and communities. I went to Kenya to produce a documentary that would relay the problem, not propose a solution. I didn’t go to start an organization, so I wasn’t looking for a problem to solve. As they say, when you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. My first trip in 2007 was truly for the purposes of education and discovery. Don’t get me wrong; there were definitely biases in our itinerary, our guides, and our worldview. But, we just want to get clarity around one question, “What is the HIV/AIDS problem in Kenya?”

The answer to that question is what gives clarity and conviction to our work today. The problem we were trying to solve is that HIV-positive parents were dying, needlessly, without access to care, counseling, community, coaching, and Christ. Because of this, children were being orphaned at an alarming rate. The problem was the rapid and unnecessary death of HIV-positive adults living in the slums of Kenya. With that problem in mind, we could begin to design a specific solution that would address that problem.

I met with an organization recently that wants to tackle tuberculosis in Uganda. I think that mission alone has merit, but as I dove deeper more, I started hearing mixed messages. As it turns out, TB is not the problem they want to solve. The problem is people not knowing Christ. Providing home-based care to patients with TB was the access point to build relationships and share Christ. I’m not challenging their method, but the desired outcomes of eradicating TB and evangelism are very different. They might choose a different strategy depending on the exact problem they want to solve.

Here are some recommendations on how to better define the problem you are trying to solve:

Research: Understand the demographics, history, culture, and other factors that contribute to the makeup of that community.

Survey: Ask the people in the community what their greatest needs and assets are. In a business, you would never offer a product or service that people don’t want or need, but I’m afraid many nonprofits do just that. Try to answer the question, “Why are they unable to meet those needs?” It is awareness, perception, access, cost, or refusal that is keeping people from getting help.

Move Upstream: Is this problem a symptom of a greater root cause? Do we want to address the symptom or illness? Most everything has a deeper root cause, so you may never find the point of origin, and it’s ok to just address a symptom. We need organization to care for the sick, homeless, trafficked, etc. regardless of what caused this problem. However, to fully understand the problem, you should try to your best to understand what caused it. And, the further you can move upstream and address the root issue, the greater trickle-down impact you can make and prevent future suffering from happening.

Competitor Analysis: Who else is working in this space? In no one, why not? If other people are working on this problem, ask them to help you define it.