Once upon a time in the kingdom of Grantlandia lived a lonely grant scribe who yearned to convince King Thomas the Tightfisted and Queen Attachmentia Excessiva to release their treasure to the people so that all could prosper. (Also, the nameless grant writer knew darn well that the Royal family was sitting on the money they had inherited or had unfairly taxed—but that is another story for another day.) The King would only listen to stories while the Queen refused to review anything but parchments recording numbers and statistics. One day an old woman dressed in rags knocked on the door of the grant writer’s humble cottage and asked for some food and drink. The scribe shared her meager meal without hesitation. Then the old woman revealed herself to be the Fairy Grantmother and stitched together stories and numbers into a beautiful manuscript that moved the King and Queen to bestow the general operating funds upon all in Grantlandia.
If fractured fairy tales aren’t getting you the storytelling advice you are seeking, try this real-life advice on storytelling from two very wise but very different sources—a nationally renowned fundraising trainer and consultant T. Clay Buck, and Marilyn Stephens from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Customer Liaison and Marketing Services Office (CLMSO) U.S Census Bureau. While Clay focuses on connecting individual donors to nonprofits and the communities they serve, and Marilyn focuses on helping people access the powerful and complex data sets from the Census Bureau, their advice intersected powerfully and interestingly for me during the last weeks of late summer.
Here are my top takeaways for creating compelling grant proposals that would make even the Fairy Grantmother proud:
- Remember that people ultimately make grant awards, whether they’re Federal grant reviewers powering through on coffee-fueled deadlines, program officers fielding hundreds of applications, or a family foundation’s trustees who gather twice a year in a conference room. Clay Buck recommends including a story of how someone (or whatever represents the community you serve) connected with your agency’s programs and combined them with their own experiences and resources to transform their lives. He calls it the “Power of One.” You can hear all about it in the latest episode of the Fundraising HayDay Podcast: Storytelling: The Power of One (podbean.com).
- Word limits, character counts, and other application limitations can lead to laundry lists of statistics, according to Marilyn Stephens from the U.S. Census Bureau. In a recent webinar, “Using Data for Grant Writing,” she provided an excellent overview of census data, the American Community Survey, and many tips and techniques for drilling down to specific communities. She worked through an example of identifying the numbers of grandparents who are primary caregivers for their grandchildren in the communities you serve could be a starting point for weaving in a brief story of how one grandmother accessed programs and activities or other supports to create a clear needs or assets statement. Even if you’ve used Census data for years, a one-hour webinar or shorter YouTube video could offer new insights. This is the link to the Census Academy for more information, https://www.census.gov/data/academy.html.
- Make sure that program data and stories in grants match or at least coordinate with similar messaging across fundraising and marketing activities. All too often, I’ve encountered or worked for organizations where program departments, grants, fundraising, and marketing/public relations might as well each work in separate castles complete with moats and drawbridges. Sharing information or adapting existing data or stories across departments can lighten your workload and ensure that individual and institutional donors don’t get mixed messages about your organization’s essential work.
While Fairy Grantmothers are most likely figments of my fevered imagination, the reality is that taking the time to weave in stories and data on the front end will make your grants more compelling. And isn’t securing more transformational grants the happy ending we all want?
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