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The Zuckerbergs, Education, and the Power of the Problem Statement

Posted by on May 30th, 2014
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Communications, Nonprofit Messaging   

Recently, Mark and Priscilla Zuckerberg posted an op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News to announce a $120 million donation to Bay Area schools.

Because we’re brand and communications nerds over here at Mission Minded, we couldn’t help but read this exciting announcement with a bit of a critical eye. Sure enough, it proved to be an interesting study in messaging.

The Zuckerbergs’ op-ed, titled “Why we’re committing $120 million to Bay Area schools,” relies heavily on the power of an essential messaging tool: the problem statement. Problem statements accomplish two critical communications tasks:

1. They paint a picture of a challenge in our society that needs to be addressed
2. They position the speaker as the answer to this challenge

In Mission Minded’s messaging approach we call this the Problem Message — the “Why we’re here” statement that comes after your “Who we are” statement. Luckily for the writers, the Zuckerberg name alone is so widely recognized that it serves as enough of an introduction.

The op-ed kicks off with a simple and compelling problem statement: “The world’s most innovative community shouldn’t also be a home for struggling public schools.” Well, surely it shouldn’t. What’s being done about it? In one fell swoop, the Zuckerbergs have placed the spotlight on a societal challenge, and set up their donation — and their foundation, Startup:Education — as the answer. So far, so good.

In what may be the weakest part of the op-ed, the Zuckerbergs build their own case as educational change-makers through two paragraphs of programmatic details. But soon enough, we circle back to their main point through a series of problem statement soundbites:

•  “Here in the Bay Area, there are communities that are underserved by our public education system.”
•  “There are many heroic educators doing their best to serve students here. But the challenges are much greater than the resources they receive.”
•  “Schools can’t try new teaching models that might help their students. They’re forced to cut back on classes and extracurricular programs. They don’t have access to computers and connectivity in the classroom.”

Note that this op-ed is light on the statistics, and it’s all the better for it. Through simple, visual, human-centered problem statements, we can see struggling teachers, students, and communities. But most importantly, we are inspired to feel something — outrage, sadness, frustration, or curiosity, whatever the emotion might be, our hearts have been pulled into the equation. In short: we care. That’s the outcome of a good message.

The Zuckerbergs wrap up with a super simple (some might say too simple) problem statement: “Education is something worth investing in and if we can help make things better it will make all of our lives better.” It certainly isn’t poetic, but it’s hard to argue with it.

If there’s one thing missing from this op-ed, it’s a story. We’re left wanting for a name or a face that adds color, verve, and humanity to this challenge. So if you’re like me, you’ll go onto Google, type in “Startup:Education,” and dive right in to learn more.

Congratulations to the Bay Area students, teachers, and administrators that will surely benefit from this fantastic news.


Sandra Fernandez is a Mission Minded Strategist. She applies her creative and editorial skills, and her passion for socially-conscious causes, to assist organizations with social media development, copyediting, writing, research, and more.

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