A personal story can be the gem of your proposal
As a writer, editor and trainer for the nonprofit sector for more than 20 years, I've answered my share of tough questions! A few inquiries on using stories in grant proposals appear below, along with my answers.
What can you tell me about the role of storytelling in proposals?
By sharing stories with funders, you will render your messages personalized, catchy and relevant. Feature your various constituents: clients, volunteers, members, donors, staff, board and strategic partners. Slice-of-life word snapshots will help put a face and voice to your work in a way that goes far beyond mind-numbing statistics. Telling a brief account of someone's story can crystallize your message in just a few words.
Ask yourself: How can you show that are you playing an important role in a community of particular concern to the grantmaker?
Think about some stories that might illustrate your answers. Every day, your organization improves people's lives. And every time that happens, a potential story is born.
Often called "case studies," these before-and-after stories illustrate how people have found the benefits or results they were seeking by working with you.
The last great novel you read or movie or television show you watched no doubt centered around its characters. Your organization also centers around its "characters:" your clients. Show how your characters' lives improve as they work with you.
Perhaps they learn some new information or a skill that they then use to rise out of despair. Or they could uncover a new resource (internal or external) that becomes crucial to their lives. Maybe they adopt a new attitude or forge a new relationship that allows them to find what they have long been seeking.
Whatever major change occurs in your characters, tell funders about how your organization played a part.
For example: After William Green completed his 10-year prison term for bank robbery, he was determined to turn his life around. A friend told him about the ABC Career Center, where he soon explored his options, learned to write a resume and cover letter, and practiced how to answer difficult interview questions about his past. In his new job as a prep cook for a catering company, William has become a model employee! "ABC accepted me. They were warm and friendly and took the time to help," he said.
How can I collect stories from the people involved with my organization?
Break out your video camera or tape recorder (if you have permission). Offer your clients disposable cameras to take pictures of their lives. Or cull through your program applications and evaluations.
Listen to the voices of your clients. They want to be heard and taken seriously, and funders want to hear what they have to say. Using people's actual words will infuse your proposal with a real-world genuineness. Quotation marks are also pretty darned eye-catching!
Include quotes that illustrate how people felt or what they experienced before, while and after working with you. Be sure to ask your interviewees the two big questions:
- How did you benefit from the experience?
- What do those benefits mean to you?
What if you can't get an exact quote, or the ones you have don't sound so great? No problem. Just paraphrase the source, and clarify that you are not directly quoting but are maintaining the spirit of the spoken words.
Bonus tip: If you receive some less-than-flattering comments, don't discount them. If they are legitimate criticisms that you are working to address, they may come in handy when you are ready to tell funders about improvements you have made.
Staff meetings are also great places to dig up stories. Conversations with co-workers around the water cooler, at lunch or after work can be gold mines for raw material that you can then follow up on. Always keep an eye and ear out for stories that others in your organization are telling.
Build a stockpile of those little gems that you can use when the time comes.
Where in a grant proposal would you include a story?
You can improve your proposals by using stories whenever possible. A few good places include:
- The problem/opportunity description
- Definition of your community of clients
- The evaluation section
- The history or track record of your organization
- The people behind your work (staff, volunteers, etc.)
Can you give suggestions of what to do about telling stories when the project is new?
Storytelling can be a bit challenging in this instance. But you will find stories lurking in the problem you are addressing and the clients you are attracting. What is going on in your community that has inspired your project? How can you illustrate the reality of what people are facing and the challenges they are dealing with?
When new projects start, there is always a compelling problem that people have come together to solve. The story of why and how they do that is an important piece. Each individual in your new organization also has a story that has brought them to the work; those are also gems to explore. Finally, new projects often emerge after an initial trial period to see what works best in your community. That trial-and-error process is worthy of discussion and has probably led you to see some solutions: all sources of good stories that your organization can build on.
For instance, you might write about how your small team of amazing staff and dedicated volunteers have overcome hardships of their own and now are set to make an impact well beyond the expected. You can also tell the story of how a donor or volunteer initially got interested in your organization and has supported it ever since.
How do you keep stories short, given that grant proposals often have strict space limitations?
Your stories need not be long to convey your point. A few paragraphs, even a few lines, will do. Just make sure you pull out the juiciest scenes or quotes that sum up the situation.
For example, one of my clients is an organization that prepares low-income students for college. In our proposals, we excerpt a few relevant lines of the students' update letters from campus. We also quote their initial program applications and final evaluations where they tell us the types of issues they must deal with at home, and how the program helps them move toward a brighter future.
For more tips from Dalya Massachi, visit Writing to Make a Difference.