Telling Colorful Tales for Money

image credit: John Nyberg

Grant writing is an art. Indeed, a lot of nonprofits hire folks just to write grants. In the past, grants have not been considered the place to tell a story. Well, that’s changing and has been for sometime.

In fact, when I started searching for information on this article, one of the sites I visited was the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Doing a site-wide search for “storytelling,” I pulled up 70 stories, some dating back to 1997. The more relevant articles went back as far as 2000. My point being, of course, that the idea of grantmaking and storytelling have been around for quite a while. Still a lot of nonprofits fail to incorporate it in the grants they write–again, that’s changing, a lot, if the Internet is any indication of who’s doing what. There are books and blogs and workshops out there about using storytelling as a way to get grants.

Below are three key points about writing grants using storytelling with information gleaned from a few sites with many more resources linked below.

Use Obstacles

“The stories nonprofits use are as varied as the organizations themselves, but the good ones all have at least one thing in common: obstacles. While the temptation will always be to jump to the happy ending (and what your fabulous organization did to bring it about), good storytellers know to prolong this moment by throwing obstructions in the way. To paraphrase legendary Hollywood screenwriting guru Robert McKee, a good story proceeds as follows: “Act I: Get your hero up a tree. Act II: Throw rocks at him. Act III: Bring him down.

“To be riveting, good stories need these ups and downs. They make protagonists more sympathetic and interesting…Sharing the low points of an organization makes a reader care long enough to stick around to hear about its high points.” (From Green Revolution)

Focus on the Story of the Individual

“Research shows that a powerful story about one individual moves donors more than general information about a program, or even stories about more than one person, advises Kivi Leroux Miller, a consultant who publishes Nonprofit Communications Blog.”

Developing your story around an individual allows grantmakers to focus on the details of your needs and who those needs affect in a way that’s far more directed and personal than information about your programs.

Show, Don’t Tell

“Show, do not tell. This is a maxim in all good storytelling. Claiming that a program is “unique and innovative” rings false without demonstrable evidence. Instead of relying solely on this well-worn catch phrase to make your case, show the funder. For example, “Our after-school music program places percussion instruments—cymbals, drums, bells—into the hands of young children for truly hands-on learning” paints a lively visual picture and succinctly shows what is special about this program.” (From an article by Cheryl Clarke)

In good storytelling, telling translates into explaining what is happening to characters. Showing uses adjectives and nouns to let your reader visualize what is happening. Of course, everything cannot (and should not) be shown, but showing will draw in your readers more than telling.

Stories have a way of pulling in readers in a way that data and statistics just don’t. One of the keys is that storytelling is an intimate process which invites readers (or listeners) to both sympathize with you and, because they must use their own imaginations to complete the story, in some way “become” you. It builds relationship and connection, turning “suit and tie individuals” into people. Something data just won’t do.

More Useful Information for Creating Grants that Tell Stories

Guide for Creating Storytelling Grants

Importance of Storytelling for Nonprofits

Kivi Leroux Miller: Storytelling Q& A

Tips from Fundraising Consultant Cheryl Clarke

Principles of Effective Storytelling





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