How to Use Storytelling for Nonprofits to Get More Grants
Unsure whether your grant proposals have what it takes to stand out in a sea of applications?
There can often be misunderstandings amongst nonprofits as to what constitutes a strong proposal in the eyes of a foundation. While there’s no one way to write the perfect proposal, there are some guiding strategies that will go a long way.
Some organizations believe that grantwriting by nature has to be dry and technical, excruciating both to write and to read, in order to convey the details and credibility of a program. Others have caught wind of the trend towards storytelling in grantseeking, and make an effort to showcase the narrative of their nonprofit in a way that comes to life. Neither approach is entirely right or wrong, but the sweet spot is learning how to take the best of both strategies to create a grant proposal that is genuinely engaging to read, while still providing funders with all of the concrete information they’ll need in order to come to an informed funding decision.
Read on for ideas on how each component of an application can tell a story without sacrificing any essential details.
The Need Statement: The Story of Why Your Organization Exists
Your need statement is like the first chapter of a novel: while the reader doesn’t yet know much of the plot, they’re discovering the landscape in which the story is set, often along with some of the background characters (in your case, the population your organization serves). As the section of the proposal that frequently comes first, the need statement serves two functions:
- It gives you an early opportunity to establish credibility.
- It provides the very first chance to hook the reader’s attention so that they’re excited to learn what happens next, as you tackle the crisis that has been introduced.
That good impression early on is invaluable! If we think of the proposal narrative as covering all of the “Five Ws” – who, what, when, where, why – the need statement covers three of those (who, where, and why) right off the bat. Don’t overlook it, as this piece is among the ripest of all for a good story!
The Program Description: The Story of How You’re Solving a Problem
Now that you’ve set up the tension in the story, it’s time for your nonprofit to conveniently swoop in and take action. In this scenario, the nonprofit and its team of intrepid problem-solvers act as as catalysts to create meaningful social change within the landscape you introduced in the Need Statement, leaving room for the population served and potentially the funders to shine as heroes. The tricky balance to strike in describing your program is explaining all of the detailed mechanisms comprehensively without the narrative turning too tedious, with too much in common with a recipe or an instruction manual.
It helps to vary your word selection and sentence structure as much as possible here, and also to think of your program staff and your clientele as characters featured in this section. Any story will fall flat without characters! Now it has become the story of how a nonprofit team is solving a problem, and how they get it done.
Think of it as an opportunity to seize upon the intersection between your mission and a foundation’s goals…
Outcomes and Evaluation: The Story of How Lives are Changed
It’s not uncommon to squirm at the words “outcomes” or “evaluation,” but if you play your cards right, this can become the most inspiring piece of the proposal. Always keep this fact central in your mind: funders care more about impact than anything else, and your entire application should keep up a solid momentum leading into this powerful social impact as the apex of the narrative. Because of this, your organization is actually not the protagonist of the story: the people you serve should be the ones in the starring role.
What the funder truly wants to know is, are lives being improved, and to what extent? You will need to include some numbers to prove that your programs are getting results, but you can also bring those numbers to life with qualitative data. Include a real quote from someone who was affected by your organization’s work, or a compelling anecdote of a real life that was forever altered for the better.
This proof of impact will demonstrate that your organization can be trusted to get the job done while simultaneously weaving a tale of how lives have been transformed so far, with the implication of a sequel: how the world can be changed even more with the foundation’s support (this would draw the funder into the story as well, as a newly introduced character!).
Pro Tip: Funders care more about the results of your activities than they do about the activities themselves. Never lose sight of that.
The Budget: Your Story, in Translation
Here comes the part where you take everything you wrote in your proposal narrative, and translate it into the language of numbers:
- Your staff, whose expertise was so glowingly conveyed in the program description, are represented by their salaries.
The supplies, equipment, or other resources that you discussed as an essential component in making results a reality? They will show up in your expenses.
- Other funders and partners who help along the way can appear on the income side.
Your narrative and budget should be mirror images of one another, so be sure that they tell identical stories.
With Story, Grantwriting Doesn’t Have to Be Tedious
Overall, a grant proposal doesn’t have to be tedious. Think of it as an opportunity to seize upon the intersection between your mission and a foundation’s goals in order to connect a potential grant to the shared interests that will make funders care, while telling the tale of a world forever changed for the better.
A well-written proposal has both an ear for detail and an ear for its audience, and the more you keep those details and readers in mind in equal measure, the more effectively you have set yourself up for grantseeking success.
Tracy plans public programs related to nonprofit sustainability, management, fundraising, and other essential issues relevant to philanthropy and the social sector. She conducts capacity-building trainings for in-person and virtual audiences within the sector, focused on the essentials of finding funding and working with grantmakers.