I can’t count the number of times over my career as a grant writer that I’ve heard that storytelling as a critical piece of grant writing. “Statistics raise eyebrows, but stories raise money,” they say. “It’s the most important part of a proposal.”
While in theory I believed this to be true, I had a hard time figuring out exactly how to tell stories within the confines of a grant application, which often lays out exactly what information must be included. And length limitations make it even trickier. I mean, how do you tell a story when you only have 500 characters per question?
Over the last few years I’ve figured out a few methods of storytelling that seem to work in grant proposals. It's especially easy in ones that are in letter format, rather than question and answer format, but you usually can sneak in some stories even in the shortest of application forms.
I’m still learning, every day. But I’d like to share with you what I do know in case it’s helpful in your work.
1. Use a conversational tone
As much as you can, use everyday, simple language in your proposal, and avoid jargon. This can create a feeling of storytelling, rather than a dry list of facts about your organization. It can also improve readability for the poor folks who have to slog through hundreds of proposals a year.
Here’s an example: Instead of saying, “Transition House provides a variety of services and programs that assist homeless families in meeting the goals needed to secure and retain permanent housing.” (Ugh, jargon much?)
Try saying something simpler, like, “Transition House helps homeless families with kids get back on their feet and back into housing.”
This gives the reader an image of a family walking into a house. It’s telling a story in one sentence. You can still give all the information about the services you provide, but your sentences don’t have to be thick with words that sometimes don’t say very much.
2. Give specific examples of what you are describing
When describing an aspect of your program, it’s powerful to immediately give a real-life example that illustrates exactly what you are talking about. This can take the form of a fact about a client, or a quote from a client. Here’s an example from Alexander House Foundation:
For rental subsidies, once a client is approved, he or she may receive ongoing support for the rest of his or her life. Over the years, as the client’s rent increases, so will the subsidy. For example, we have been assisting one couple since 2006. Over that period of time, the rent for their one-bedroom apartment has increased from $1,000 to $1,600, but their combined income has only increased by $300. Thus, the monthly subsidy we provide consistently increases. We recently increased the subsidy for an 89-year-old woman when her rent increased by $250. Staying in her apartment is particularly important to her because she lives near Cottage Hospital and is able to walk to get her weekly blood tests.
Now the reader has a better understanding of why the organization would increase the rental subsidies, and they might even remember one of those stories when making a decision about the grant.
Here’s an example that uses a quote from Girls Inc. Carpinteria:
Girls Inc. provides girls with safe, nurturing spaces to explore their hopes and fears, while taking them on adventures that push their limits. Not only do our girls develop as scholars, they gain a support network that helps them overcome their fears. One high school senior reflected on her experience by saying, “One of many core values I learned from Girls Inc. was to step out of my comfort zone. These words became my mantra… I overcame my fear of heights, my fear of speaking in front of people, and learned to take control of my depression and anxiety.”
Isn’t that powerful? And it doesn’t even take up that much space!
3. Use headlines to organize your text
I think it’s a good idea to break up the dense lines of text in a proposal with headlines that offer the essence of what a particular section is about. I say headline, rather than label, because it’s more impactful to take a journalistic approach and include a verb in there! This is the most recent lesson I learned (from a storytelling expert named Jeff Brooks), and I think it’s made my proposals more interesting.
Below is an example (from Pacific Pride Foundation) of how you can change a boring label into a more informative and engaging headline. The original section label I had on the example below was “Community Outreach.” Blah. Both jargony and uninformative. Here’s what I changed it to:
HIV and Hepatitis C Education Teaches People How to Stay Healthy
We provide HIV/HCV presentations to organizations, businesses, and schools. In 2017-18 we reached 2,004 people at 38 different recovery agencies, health fairs, Planned Parenthood, the Rescue Mission, testing events, and other locations.
The new headline is a step up in that it tells the reader something before they even read the paragraph. This can be important if the reader never actually reads the paragraph, or just gives it a cursory glance. I suspect there is a lot of skimming going on with proposal reading, so the more you can convey with headlines, the better.
4. Liberally use quotes and testimonials
Quotes and testimonials can be an easy way to bring stories to a proposal. One thing I’ve been doing for a number of years is introducing a section of the proposal with a headline and a quote that relates to the topic. This way, the reader knows something before they read the paragraph, and then they are drawn in immediately by a story that will make them feel something.
Here is an example from Transition House of how to incorporate quotes as a storytelling method:
We are requesting a grant to support our family emergency shelter, the first stage in our three-stage housing program. This program has a tremendous impact on families in our community. One of our volunteers recently told us this: “I have been profoundly touched, moved, and taught by the families here. I often see families one year, two years, three years later in the community and they always say, ‘Thank God for Transition House. It is the best thing that ever happened to me.’”
And a final one from Girls Inc. Carpinteria:
Our girls have experienced acute anxiety as the result of recent attacks on immigrant and women’s rights and terrifying events like school shootings. Through the She Votes civic engagement program, they turn fear into action. Girls learn about public policy issues and participate in a mock election in which they cast votes for the candidates and initiatives on the real ballot. Our 21st recipient of the prestigious Girls Inc. National Scholar award recipient, Jenna Ortiz*, explained our impact on her life by saying, "I am grateful to have won the Girls Inc. National Scholarship, but I could not have done it without the help of my Girls Inc. mentors. They taught me how to be genuine and provided me with tools that will continue to support me in the future. I will always cherish Girls Inc. of Carpinteria for giving me a second home and making a confident woman out of me."
I also think that quotes are helpful when talking about impact or evaluation. Here's an example from Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation:
In determining our outcomes, we gather data through an annual survey that asks families how they were impacted by our services. We collect quantitative data through numeric rating scales about our services as well as qualitative data through feedback written in the family’s own words, such as:
"You hear about children getting sick but you never imagine it will happen to you. When Will* was diagnosed, we were in shock and were not prepared for the impact it would have on our family both financially and emotionally. With the loss of one income and huge medical bills, Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation provided financial support that allowed us to keep our heads above water. They also helped to cover counseling services to help repair the emotional and social impact on Will. We are so grateful to be part of their family.” ~ TBCF Family
"My wife and I are very thankful for Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation who has helped us financially and emotionally. We were invited to Family Support Groups once a month to speak with others families, connect with them, and become like a family; we felt safe talking to others about our issues." ~ TBCF Family
There are many more aspects to storytelling in grant proposals than what I laid out here. Please share other methods you use in the comments below!
* Names have been changed to protect privacy.
By Heather Stevenson of The Write Team