Power of Nonprofit Storytelling | Your grants won’t get far without this key element…

May 13, 2019


Have you ever wondered what it’s like to regularly review grant proposals from nonprofit organizations?

I’ve been there. For nearly seven years, I worked in programming and communications for a major Philadelphia grantmaking foundation.  And what did I discover over the course of my tenure, after reading thousands of grant proposals? Well, you might be surprised to learn that even the most seasoned nonprofit professionals, who know how vital storytelling is to their work, forget every lesson they’ve ever learned when it comes to writing grant proposals.

I still recall how, after reviewing a proposal from a local hunger relief organization, our Vice President of Programs turned to me and said:

“It’s got all the makings of a successful project, but it’s not very compelling, is it?”

Sadly, this organization’s grant proposal was all too typical. The overwhelming majority of the proposals that crossed my desk were dry, didactic, filled with statistics, and repetitive.

But one nonprofit CEO understood the power of storytelling.

Edith was the impassioned founder of her organization, a faith-based nonprofit serving women and children.  Every grant proposal from their organization featured dynamic stories of their clients’ struggles, challenges, and most importantly, victories. Oftentimes, her stories read like magazine serials, and they really brought the organization’s mission to life.

“Remember Joan S?” Edith would write. “She’s now living in her own home, has regained custody of her children, and next June she’ll be graduating from college…”  

Through Edith, we came not just to know the lives her nonprofit transformed, we came to care about them. We became invested in their outcomes and their successes. We came to know their humanity. This founder’s storytelling was so vibrant, so positive and inspirational, that when a proposal from her organization arrived in the mail, the office manager knew to automatically make four copies! One for the President, one for the Vice President of Administration, one for the Vice President of Programming, and even one the Vice President of Finance.

Each proposal invariably inspired joy and excitement among those lucky enough to read it.

“A new proposal from Edith?” the VP of Programs would say with a smile. “I can’t wait to read it!”

Storytelling played a major role in the success of this organization and the grant proposals they created.  And, despite grant application guidelines stating that an organization could receive no more than three consecutive years of funding, this nonprofit’s grant proposals were fully funded for six years in a row before being asked, with a sigh of genuine regret, to “take a year off.”

When it comes to grant proposals, why is it so easy to let storytelling fall by the wayside? Is it because statistics are concrete and emotion isn’t? Is it because you view storytelling as inconsequential or unprofessional? Is it hard to go there? Once you learn how to do it, and do it well, you’ll not only grow comfortable, but you’ll realize that it’s something you don’t ever want to leave behind.

If your organization is focused on building a portfolio of foundation funding, storytelling must play a role in your grant proposals. If it doesn’t, you won’t get far.

Ira Glass, host of This American Life, states it perfectly in Andy Goodman’s Storytelling as Best Practice:

“The most powerful thing you can hear, and the only thing that ever persuades any of us in our own lives, is [when] you meet somebody whose story contradicts the thing you think you know. At that point, it’s possible to question what you know, because the authenticity of their experiences is real enough to do it.”

Your rules for incorporating storytelling in your foundation grant proposal are similar to the guidelines we’ve already covered. You’ll need an initial “hook.”  As Cheryl A. Clarke notes in her book, Storytelling for Grantseekers:

“The storyteller’s goal is to engage, or “hook,” a reader with the first few sentences or paragraphs of the narrative.  This is also true in proposal writing.  In fact, some program officers say that — following the summary — the first paragraph in the narrative is often the best indicator as to whether or not they should continue reading.  So it is critical for your narrative to include an effective initial hook.”

Aside from meeting the grant application deadlines and ensuring that your proposal includes everything, incorporating compelling storytelling within your proposal will lend it an edge. Yours will stand out, drawing eyes to it. In my days as a small shop fundraiser, and then later as a grant writing consultant, one of my standard procedures was to find a story for every statistic cited. On their own, numbers are rarely compelling, but then they’re backed by stories, it takes them to another level. So statistics served as the initial inspiration, helping me to incorporate those key narratives into my grant proposals, but the numbers never stood alone.

Where are you in your grant-writing processes at this moment? Have you woven some of your nonprofit’s best stories into your grant proposals, or has the thought never even crossed your mind?

I’m glad I learned what I did when I did, and how I did. The experience led to a lot of wisdom gained, not to mention fond memories!


Repurposed from Nonprofit Storytelling | Basics & More, the first online storytelling class developed to help nonprofits address the challenges of telling their organization’s stories.

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