Grant Writing and Storytelling

I often meet nonprofit executive directors and development professionals who insist one must be “creative” when writing a grant proposal in order to grab the attention of the potential donor and to secure funding. This, compounded with a flood of advice provided online by communications experts – sometimes misconstrued to apply also to grant writing – means there is a disconnect with reality. Yes, storytelling is an important aspect of nonprofit communications, but use it carefully when it comes to writing grant proposals.

A well-regarded grant maker in Texas once remarked when we discussed this quandary:

Give me the facts. Get to the point. I have to read hundreds of grant proposals. If I cannot understand what you need and why, and fairly quickly, I will turn my attention to the next proposal.

Storytelling
Click to read a helpful article from The Creativity & Productivity Blog, “6 Tips to Improve Your Creativity.”

One of the earliest articles on Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog, “Grant Writing: A Reality Check,” is one of my most read. I note therein that I heartily endorse securing formal grant writing training (as I have done), but my mantra is also that one must follow instructions and that each potential funder is unique and has unique requests for information.

This is not generally the case with government grant writing, but it certainly is when it comes to writing grants for private sector foundations, corporations and for individuals. Listen and respond as requested, rather than simply following the preset format you may have learned during a grant writing seminar. You should respect their inquiries and the way in which they prefer to receive information.

Professional grant training by reputable providers does provide good general guidance in this regard. But once you encounter a prospective donor, each of whom is unique, you need to be mentally prepared. As a grant writer myself, I observe that grant proposals are becoming shorter these days. That means there is less “space” to tell a story, and hence you must focus on the facts and why you need financial support. While you should aim to be compelling, err on the side of brevity unless you are specifically given the opportunity to elaborate.

You might enjoy reading Kathryn Pauley of Nonprofit Hub, “Finding Your Perfect Love: Grant Writing Tips for Nonprofits” (n.d.). I also enjoyed a somewhat unusual resource, an article by Catherine Clifford for Entrepreneur, “8 Writing Strategies for People Who Say They Can’t Write” (2014).

“When you sit down to write a business pitch, a grant proposal or a speech, be sure that you have done your research and know precisely what you mean to communicate. If you’re struggling to write, it may be a sign that you are confused about what you want to say. Condense the main nugget of what you are trying to say into just a short phrase or sentence, and you’ll have a better shot at composing a tight, organized piece.

You might enjoy reading the Harvard Business Review, “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling” (2014).

I enjoyed reading an article by Thomas Boyd, Chief Editorial Consultant for The Grantsmanship Center, “Head & Heart: Balancing Data and Passion” (2021). Don’t take for granted the power of engaging nonprofit staff (especially those in development) in direct experiences with the work of your nonprofit. “Do your staff members have an opportunity to actually go into the field and share some of the work on the ground? It would be good if a social services organization gave its employees exposure and participation in neighborhoods, at clinics, in the places where the services are delivered.” Yes, grant writers must focus on data and outcomes and be clear and concise in their grant requests. But you can give your fundraising a positive jolt by energizing the very staff members responsible for keeping your nonprofit alive and thriving from a financial standpoint.

Last but not least, a report produced by the University of Indiana Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in 2022, “The Giving Environment: Understanding How Donors Make Giving Decisions” notes:

People shifted their giving to organizations that demonstrated impact and efficacy, which actively engaged in communication and education, and which personalized donor engagement. They appreciated organizations’ efforts to present the impact of donor gifts and planned to continue contributing to organizations with clear and consistent communication.

Each donor is unique; clear and consistent communication is key. You might also enjoy reading Qgiv’s, “4 Steps to Communicating With Grant Funders.”

One thought on closing is, hone down on the facts and outcomes in your grant proposals, but don’t forget that donors and their professional advisors are conducting research online about your nonprofit and its work. It may be that the bulk of your “storytelling” can be conveyed more effectively by focusing your social media postings on bending the heartstrings.

2 thoughts on “Grant Writing and Storytelling

  1. Thanks for your very interesting and thoughtful comment, Kyle. My experience is: less is more. If you have more “space” in a proposal to elaborate on your story, then by all means, do it. Use proper grammar, be focused and clear, and maintain a respectful approach. These are all good things to employ. But if you cannot tell your story succinctly, you may lose what little attention the grant maker has. There are so many nonprofit organizations and worthy causes today. Grant makers have a limited amount of time (and money to award). One must also keep in mind the ever-growing field of professional advisors who are “vetting” potential grants on behalf of donors. It is a challenging business. Best wishes for your fundraising success!

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  2. Kyle Schutter

    I’m curious about how much story grantors actually want. My hunch, even if they say they want to get straight to the point, they say one thing but they want something else. I’m not talking about telling a Harry Potter, 7 book, wizard story. I’m talking a Steve Jobs iPhone launch story. I think grantors want a story, whether they admit it or not.

    I think there are a few rules of stories that should be applied to grant writing. Just to name a few here:

    1. Not too many characters. Don’t talk about every single type of client. Just the one or two archetypes relevant for the grant. This is one of the failings of Russian Literature: There are too many characters to keep track of.
    2. Create an emotional connection to the characters. Why do they care about this? Humans, all humans, even you and I, make emotional decisions and then justify our emotional decisions with logic. So, yes you need to have logic to support, but first the person makes an emotional decision to support your organization.
    3. Good stories aren’t monotone. They have ups and downs. In your grant application you can’t just be shouting the whole time. You can be the hero the whole time. Shouting all of the time is shouting none of the time because great stories rely on the ebb and flow of contrasts.

    What do you think Carolyn? I think that’s a better case for how important storytelling is in Grants. At least that’s how I write grants for my clients and more often than not we win.

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