For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved to tell stories. As a kid, I told stories mostly in an effort to make people laugh. Any story where an armpit could make funny noises or a kid falls in the mud was a good story (don’t judge me).
But I had no idea, all those years ago, how important storytelling would become in the many different parts of my life. I’ve told stories for years now as a way to engage people, paint a picture for them, and attempt to move them to action. I certainly didn’t know back then that storytelling and the grant writing world would intersect, and yet, the more I’m involved with writing grants, and the more I speak to funders, the more I understand that being able to tell your story well within your grant application, the better.
In our blog post, “The Top 3 Tips For Telling Your Story So Funders Listen,” we outlined some foundational elements of effective storytelling that you should implement as you compose your grant proposals. But, before you begin to write your story, there are some important questions you should be asking. The last thing you want to do is tell the wrong story, stare at a blank page, or not tell a story at all.
Consider these five important questions the next time you think about crafting your story to ask a funder to invest in your organization.
1. Do I Already Know What Story I Want To Tell?
Author Thomas Steinbeck said, “My secret to writing is to never create at a keyboard.” If your organization does not already have the elements of a compelling story in place, nothing you can do at the keyboard will make much of a difference.
If your program is already in place, or even if it is brand new, most of the story should already be written. Why did you create the program in the first place? What struggles does the hero of your story face? How did you come to be an effective guide? How did you arrive at your specific plan? What evaluation have you done to understand the impact and transformation? Why am I asking so many questions (sorry, I couldn’t help myself)?
If you don’t have a story already brewing based on the work you have done, you may not be ready to submit a grant proposal.
2. Who Am I Writing This Story For?
We can’t stress enough the power of understanding the audience for whom you will be writing. Take some time to do some research to make sure you have a full and deep sense for the funder and their overall mission.
Take some time to read about past programs and projects that have been funded by this particular grantee, if they are available. You can learn a lot about what the funder is passionate about if you know what they have already supported. Contact organizations that have received funding and pick their brains about what resonates most with the funder and how you might be able to write your story so they take notice.
As part of the work to get to know the funder, reach out to them specifically and look for opportunities to speak with them, meet them face-to-face, and find out what is important to them. Most funders are open to meeting with organizations and providing input into their funding process. Take advantage of every opportunity to get to know them and build strong relationships.
3. What Would An Early Headline Be For My Story?
Headlines can be interesting:
- “Camouflaged Army Vehicle Disappears”
- “Most Earthquake Damage Caused By Shaking”
- “Statistics Show Teen Pregnancy Drops Off After Age 25.”
Ok, the good news is you don’t need to have an actual headline for your story, because obviously it is more difficult than it seems. The people who wrote those headlines actually get paid to write headlines for a living.
The power of writing an early headline for a story is that it forces the writer to boil down their premise into one sentence or a few words. By working through that exercise, writers gain focus quickly, and truly understand what their story is really about before they even begin writing. That kind of clarity will make the writing process easier, more efficient, and more effective.
4. Will Anybody Care About My Story?
Imagine that you have to tell your story to a friend. Would they be bored? Would they understand it? Would they care? Would it be the kind of story they’d like to hear more than once?
Your story, to be effective, needs to be compelling. It needs an interesting hero with a difficult problem. For funders to care, your story should demonstrate, through research and the reality of your community, that there are significant concerns and issues for your “main character.” Take the time to develop the need and be sure to concisely express that through your story.
As the sidekick, or guide, do you have a solution that really works? Where did you get your credibility to provide solutions? What capacity do you have to provide a plan for your hero?
Once you can answer these questions, you should be able to spend some time telling the story through this lens, and funders will be intrigued.
5. Is Your Story Different From Others?
Have you ever watched a movie and felt like you’ve seen it already? It happens all the time when films come out within months of each other and seem remarkably similar.
- In May 1995, the movie “Gordy” came out. In August 1995, “Babe.” Both movies are about talking pigs.
- In July 1998 the movie “Saving Private Ryan” came out – December 1998, “The Thin Red Line” – both movies are about events surrounding WWII.
- In January 2011, the movie “No Strings Attached” came out. In July of the same year, “Friends with Benefits.” I’ll let you look up what those are about, but believe me… same movie.
The point of the question is to force you to think about what makes your program different. What sets you apart from the other organizations that will be telling their stories? What can you do to surprise your reader (the funder)? What can you offer that is unexpected?
If a funder understands that your organization can offer something different from so many other great organizations, there is a greater likelihood that funding is something they would consider.
Have You Saved Your Work Recently?
You can thank me later. Writing is such hard work, it is important to not lose the work you have already done. Be sure to save it in a few places where you can access your writing when you need it.
Become really good storytellers so you increase your chances of having your grants funded. Engage your funders, be compelling, and work hard to write stories in ways that move them to say “yes” to your proposals. Save the stories about armpits and muddy kids for your spare time.
Now it’s your turn. Answer these five questions and start crafting your story!