Have you ever used storytelling in your grant writing?
We get it! Every grant application has standard requirements and questionnaires that can feel rigid. That is where storytelling in grant narratives comes in!
By integrating an effective story into your grant application, you’ll be one step closer to creating a winning proposal. In this article, you’ll learn how to tell an effective story and incorporate it in your grant writing.
What Makes an Effective Story in Grant Writing?
To start, let’s begin with defining what an effective story in grant writing consists of.
Effective storytelling brings the reader through the entire journey of your organization’s mission, the problem you seek to solve, how you intend to solve it, and what happens when you do solve it.
Before we give you a step by step guide on how to do that, let’s cover the basic storytelling framework you should use to structure your story. There are many writing resources to help guide you through this process. The Author Learning Center breaks down story structures into five stages:
This is the beginning of your story where you present the main problem and establish your setting. The reader should feel like they are right there with the program recipients and can imagine exactly what it feels like to go through the problem that you seek to solve.
Next, you will introduce the problem in more detail to create tension and excitement. To create tension, an effective story will transition from the perspective of an individual to a broader statement on the driving force of the problem.
The climax is the turning point where tensions and conflict rise and leave the reader with piqued interest and curiosity about what happens next. At this point, the reader should be engaged with the problem and feel the weight of the challenge that arises with this need not being met. They readers should feel like something should be done about it.
This is the part where the problem and/or conflict are being resolved. There appears to be light at the end of the tunnel and you are coming to the rescue! This is where you can be the hero.
The main conflict gets resolved and the story concludes. Your program is in full motion and you are describing what happens when you are able to operate successfully and resolve the problem that you seek to solve.
When you are thinking about the best approach to apply the traditional structure of a story to your grant writing, it is important to consider how you will include your mission, vision, and programs so that they fit within this framework.
There are three key components to creating an effective story in grant writing:
1. The story takes the reader on a journey
Effectively telling a story in grant writing means that you are taking the reader on a journey through your mission to feel and experience the problem you’re addressing.
Even if the reader has never experienced the problem you are solving and is not an expert in it, your writing should be so descriptive that they can imagine what that experience would be like for someone else.
If you are getting stuck on how to write in a descriptive way, take a journey to your program site for the day and bring a journal with you. Act like an observer and write down everything you notice.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
What do you see when you arrive?
Who do you see?
How do you feel?
Are there any program recipients around and what are they experiencing?
Visiting your program site and reflecting on your answers to these questions can help inspire you to get creative in your writing.
2. The story connects the reader to the problem and solution
Another component of effective storytelling is connecting the problem you are solving to the solution by incorporating research into your narrative. The best way to do this is to include a few data points about your problem.
Start out by breaking down the problem you are solving to a very basic level. Then, add in a few data points to reinforce the challenge that this problem poses for the community you serve.
Feel free to use global or national data points. However, if you are able to find local data for a specific community, that would be much more effective particularly if the program you want funded operates within a specific region.
3. The story has a hero, and it’s YOU
Effective storytelling is also about making your organization the hero of the story. You started out by painting the picture of the problem and showing evidence of the problem. Now, it’s time for your organization to come to the rescue with an incredible solution that is going to impact people directly.
This is where you can share how your program solves the problem. You can also include your successes and milestones that you’ve achieved so far. Referencing these achievements helps the reader envision you as the hero of the problem that you presented in the beginning of your story.
If you master these three elements, you’ll be on the right track to securing effective storytelling in grant narratives. Let’s review what this might look like in practice with a few practical examples of sections that are typically on a grant application.
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The needs statement typically comes at the very beginning of the grant application. To write this section successfully, you should evoke a sense of urgency that is supported by recent and compelling data.
However, focusing too heavily on the data can take away from the narrative of this section—you want to position the data in a way that substantiates the picture you are painting of the urgent need facing a certain community or group.
Your needs statement should provide a descriptive overview of the problem as it currently stands, data to back up that the problem exists and it’s urgent, and a clear but brief explanation of the solution you have to solve it.
Here is an example:
Most adolescent children and their families in Smith County are experiencing hunger every day. Since the onset of the pandemic, the demand for youth hunger relief programs in Smith County increased by 40%.
Smith County is a rural community with limited food pantries that are accessible to youth and their families. With the increased demand, local food pantries are only able to serve one out of four individuals who seek their assistance. In order to address this gap, Amazing Nonprofit has developed a partnership with local grocery stores and restaurants to host pop up farmer’s markets with leftover produce and meals.
Do you see how this needs statement sets up the problem and setting and then transitions to a solution that seems to resolve it?
If you have space, you could even share a bit more about Smith County or the population that it serves. Another powerful component you could include would be an example of a real client that represents your typical program recipient.
How To Storytell Effectively in Your Program Description
The program description is a detailed narrative that describes every piece of the program, how it works, and how you would go about implementing it.
Storytelling in the program description can play a role in providing the reader with an imaginative visual of what is happening around the problem that prompted action to take place. Like the needs statement, you want to paint a clear and compelling picture for the readers—this time focusing on your solution to that need.
Let’s continue with the example of Amazing Nonprofit.
Here is what the start of the program description would look like:
Amazing Nonprofit has implemented youth and family hunger relief programs in Smith County for over 10 years reaching 100,000 people each year across 5 local food pantries. The Pop Up Pantry program was developed in response to the pandemic.
In a normal year, Smith County food pantries have a waiting list of at least 50 people every day who go to bed hungry because of our limited capacity and resources to meet the demand in our community. When the pandemic hit, the waiting list grew. Our team felt helpless as we watched the line in the parking lot grow longer with more youth than we had ever seen before. As a result, we challenged ourselves to think differently about our ability to service our community beyond our brick-and-mortar pantries.
The Pop Up Pantry program is managed by our Hunger Innovation Director with a team of 5 field coordinators. The hunger team is responsible for managing the onsite logistics with each grocery store and monitors program activities.
The program description would continue to dive into more details about the program including who is involved, how it works, and who it benefits.
Can you point out where storytelling was incorporated in the above example? Here’s a hint: where did you feel the most emotion? You guessed it! It's the sentence that describes how the team felt seeing the line grow longer.
Do you see how this detail transports the reader to the waiting line at the food pantry? It goes beyond the data and statistics and showcases a story that represents something that hundreds or even thousands of people are going through. And more than that, it gives the reader a glimpse into the problem’s direct impact on a person. Achieving this is key to storytelling in your program description.
How To Storytell Effectively In Your Outcomes & Evaluation Section
The outcomes and evaluation section on a grant application will typically include a format that demonstrates how you will measure your intended outcomes for the program.
This section is usually preset with an outcome-based logic model or grid. Here is an example from the Wallace Foundation:
Although the logic model has specific sections that make it difficult to tell a story, there is usually a small narrative section that walks the reader through the model. This is where you should incorporate compelling information on the impacts for program recipients and the population that you serve.
Be as specific as possible about what will happen when the program is funded and make sure you link it to the people that you serve.
If you are able to share an individual perspective, even better!
Here’s an example of what that might look like:
Amazing Nonprofit aims to address the increased demand of hunger relief programs for local youth and their families through a Pop Up Pantry program. Through this program, we expect to eliminate our wait line while enabling families to gain immediate access to nutritious food.
In a recent study of the pilot of our program, we were able to serve 100 families in just two hours. The families we interviewed shared with us the relief they felt in being able to share a meal as a family again without waiting in line for hours after traveling across town and leaving work early.
In this section, you can see how the overarching goal of the program is being reached through the positive outcomes shared in the story.
From there, you would continue to walk the reader through the logic model and add a few other examples of positive results that you would see within that respective phase of the logic model.
When crafting the narrative for your outcomes and evaluation section, ask yourself: how will the lives of those we plan to serve change if this project/program is implemented? How will they feel? What impact, if any, will be made on their families and broader community as a result?
Can You Storytell in Your Grant Budget? How?
You might be wondering about this section on the grant application. That’s right, the budget narrative!
While this section is focused on numbers, you can incorporate storytelling to demonstrate the gravity of the potential impact that your program would have on the community that you serve.
You can also use storytelling to justify your expenses and showcase the importance of them.
Here’s an example of how you could incorporate these concepts for the Amazing Nonprofit example:
The Pop Up Pantry would require an annual investment of $50,000 for a minimum of two years. There are three primary expense categories that are an essential part of the program budget: staffing, facilities and partnership engagement, and family food stipends.
For the first expense category, the Hunger Innovation team will allocate approximately 15 hours per week to support the Pop Up Pantry program. After reviewing our initial evaluation of the program pilot, we discovered that program recipients originally felt wary of the program until they saw team members from our food pantry onsite.
Having people available that they trust to guide them as a resource proved to be invaluable to ensure program recipients had a positive experience with utilizing the Pop Up Pantry. This connection was particularly important for individuals who are experiencing significant hardships in other areas such as unemployment and housing issues.
In this example, the staffing costs associated with the Pop Up Pantry program are linked directly to the program. In addition, the cost is further justified by sharing the perspective of the program recipients and the impact that the hunger team’s presence had on them.
While this narrative is financial in nature, you can still create opportunities to connect your expenses to the mission overall.
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Examples of Storytelling in Grant Narratives
Still need some inspiration? Sometimes the best way to get inspired is to spend some time looking over real grant proposals.
The following grant proposal examples do a good job of incorporating effective storytelling strategies into their narratives.
Sunshine Clubs Youth Funding Proposal: Sunshine Clubs, an organization run by St Osmund’s Pre-School in Salisbury, created a proposal requesting funds to rent a minibus for their summer holiday clubs for children aged 3-11.
This proposal does a great job of making a compelling case as to why the minibus is needed and the impact that it would have on the children in the community. Pay special attention to the personal anecdotes they include in the proposal that help illustrate how effective and transformative their clubs have been in the past.
Including these detailed personal stories was a great way to draw the readers in and connect them to the pressing need of expanding the reach of these clubs in the community.
Hale County Humane Society Proposal: Hale County Humane Society created a proposal requesting general operating funds for their animal shelter. In their “reason for requesting funds” or needs statement section, the writers do a good job of starting with a general overview of the dangers of the overpopulation of strays in the community.
This overview helps to lay the foundation of the narrative and instantly gets the reader invested in figuring out what a solution might look like. This proposal is a great example of what it looks like to take the readers on a journey where your organization can be the hero in the end.
Wrapping Up: How to Storytell Effectively in Grant Narratives
In this article, we covered all of the details and tips you’ll need for successful storytelling in grant narratives. As you begin writing your own story, remember to take the reader on a journey, connect them personally to the problem, and position your organization as the ideal hero to solve it.
For more insight on how to craft a strong grant proposal, check out our ultimate list of grant narrative tips! Now that you have all of the tools to write an effective story, go out and win that grant!
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