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Why Every Grant Application Needs a Powerful Story


how to write a grant proposal tell a story To win the hearts of people at a funding organization, you need to tell a short story in the grant application — like the one below about “Maria Lopez” and her trouble with English.

In early July, floodwaters ravaged several West Virginia counties, and now residents are left to pick up the pieces.

One local group, Leadership West Virginia Alumni Education Committee, wants to raise money to replace damaged technology in multiple schools (ex: routers, printers, copiers and other devices like iPads, laptops and smartboards).

Yes, it’s tragic what happened in West Virginia. But everyday, thousands of organizations ask for money — either from the public or charitable entities. With so many groups in need of funding, what sets your “pitch” apart from the rest?

The answer: a powerful story.

In this blog post, I will focus on storytelling as it relates to a grant application. Yes, the funding organization must read about the purpose of a project/initiative and estimated costs — the basic facts that make your application worthy of consideration.

But the funder also needs to understand the heart and soul of the project; in other words, how your organization has made a difference in someone’s life or will have an impact once the program begins.

Without the story, it’s a bunch of facts and figures. With a story, you put a face to the mission.

There are several places in an application where a short story makes sense and adds value. Look for sections called:

  • Statement of Need
  • Project Description
  • Participants (as an “Example of Past Success with a Participant”)
  • Previous Outcomes

In the template below, the organization, Acme Non-Profit, provides educational opportunities for children of immigrants through an initiative called Our Children, Our Community. The program is in its 4th year and has requested $15,000 from the Acme Foundation to continue the effort and increase the number of children it reaches.

PLEASE NOTE: Your story must align with the mission of the funder. In the *fictional* anecdote below, Acme Non-Profit describes the experience of an young immigrant because the funder, Acme Foundation, wants to support organizations that help immigrants adjust to life in America.

Keep an eye on the footnotes as I explain each section at the end.

“A Brand New Start: How Our Children, Our Community Changed the Life of Maria Lopez”

(1) It’s October 2015, and Maria Lopez sat in timeout for the sixth time in only the seventh week of school. Frustrated and rebellious, teachers couldn’t seem to the reach the fourth grader and improve her behavior.

(2) Maria is a first-generation American. Her parents are from El Salvador and speak little English. That means Maria comes to school every day with limited English skills. What’s worse, Acme Elementary School (where she attends) lost its funding for additional programming for ESL (English as a Second Language). Without a tutor, Maria’s regular teacher must lead the class and provide ESL lessons for Maria. In short, she’s overworked.

(3) That’s where Our Children, Our Community stepped in. With the money we raised in spring 2015, we were able to secure a tutor for Maria three days a week (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 2-330 pm). Within a few weeks, Maria’s teacher and guidance counselor could see a major improvement in her behavior and class participation.

(4) As Maria gained confident with her English skills, she smiled more, paid attention and followed class rules. Her teacher even remarked that one time, Maria assisted a classmate (and native English speaker) with a lesson on verb tenses. The teacher told us, “I had tears in my eyes watching Maria help someone else with his English. She’s come a long way!”

(5) In October 2015 (during the period of multiple time-outs), Maria was close to failing in every subject. By mid spring, she had a B- or B+ in every class. We at Acme Non-Profit think that’s a huge accomplishment.

(6) Maria is the reason we at Our Children, Our Community work so hard. We know every child has the potential to be great. The key is to surround the child with a support system that addresses the need head-on and gets results. (5)

(7) We are excited to continue our initiative for a fourth year and hope we can can count on the Acme Foundation for the $15,000 grant. In 2016, we have a goal to help between 50-60 children. By comparison, our program assisted 26 children in 2015. We know our costs will increase for staff, supplies and other resources. (6)

(8) When you consider our application, think about Maria and how she’s now flourishing and excited for third grade. Help us make a similar impact on even more children.

Again, the story above is part of the grant application — not the entire document. But you can see how the story provides depth and allows the readers to understand how the grant will make a difference.

Here’s the breakdown following the numbers associated with the story.

1. Place the reader into a story immediately. Set the scene and explain the problem (…”teachers couldn’t seem to the reach the fourth grader and improve her behavior”).

2. Provide details on the person’s life and nature of the situation (Maria has two parents who don’t speak English, her school lost ESL funding and her regular teacher doesn’t have time to create special lessons).  The details of this section are crucial; the more specific you are about the person’s situation (and how tough it is), the more compelling it will be.

3. Explain the impact made by your organization and be as specific as you can. Note how I wrote “…we were able to secure a tutor for Maria three days a week Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 2-330 pm”.

4. Provide a detailed example of how your efforts made a difference (in essence, a story within a story).

5. Include metrics of how the situation has improved (data points will be different given the situation; in the story here, the metrics are Maria’s grades).

6. Explain how the person you profiled (ex: Maria Lopez) is a perfect example of why you care about the work so much.

7. Discuss the reason for the grant request and why you need the amount requested (“In 2016, we hope to help between 50-60 children. By comparison, our program assisted 26 children in 2015.”)

8. Conclude with a reference once more to your story.

A few more points: 

  • Even if the application doesn’t ask for a story or anecdote, you should still provide one. People love to read stories and your example will set the grant request apart from the others.
  • Many online grant applications have character limits so you may need to exercise brevity as you tell the story. Always ask yourself, “Is this word, phrase or sentence necessary to tell the story?” If the answer is no, cut it out.
  • Make sure you don’t include sensitive or private information about your story subject(s).

Have you told a story as part of a grant application? How did it turn out?

Share below!

Featured photo: KOMUnews (Flickr)

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