How to Win Grants with Great Storytelling

An excellent proposal writer needs to be an excellent storyteller. My role model for storytelling was my father. I could listen to his stories over and over again without tiring. He would spin memorable tales with vivid characters, both antagonists and protagonists. Without any doubt, I attribute my success in proposal writing to what I learned from his stories. I apply the following rules for storytelling in my proposals:

A good story is one that you love, and love to tell

My father loved the stories he told us, and on each occasion he would share them as though it were the first time. He was so engrossed in each story that he almost seemed to be one of the characters. Often, he internalized the characters and either cared about or disliked them deeply.

Similarly, as proposal writers, we have an opportunity to tell donors a story. Since the donor is the hero, you can make the point that without their assistance, the constituents or needed idea could not be saved. However, you must also care; you need to be those constituents as you tell their story. You should have internalized their plight and demonstrated genuine concern for them. Yet, you cannot do this if you do not love the needed idea, or if you are only writing because someone told you to do so.

A good story needs both conflict and resolution

My father’s characters always encountered trouble. The actions they took or others took on their behalf signified a change in their approach, and possibly triggered epiphanies necessary for their redemption. This made me identify with the characters – who always seemed to be strong – and entranced me. It made me wait to see how the story would evolve from beginning, to middle, to end. I wanted to know what was going to happen.

In your proposals, you have characters that need your intervention, and will ultimately make the needed changes for their lives to be transformed (redemption). You should begin with their plight (the problem), speak about the goal and the objectives that you will develop to make the change, and ask the hero (donor) to help your protagonists (constituents). The believable action moving the story through the conflict to the resolution is what keeps the audience (reviewers) entranced. They want to know what’s going to happen (how you propose to solve the problem) and how they can help.

A good story has to have substance

The ideas of my father’s stories were never superficial. Vital concerns that needed resolution formed the basis of his stories, whether about nature, people, animals, or even objects. The solution was never an easy one, and his characters were sincere. In fact, it seemed as though sincerity was the central focus. I empathized with the characters and wondered what I would do given their choices.

For proposal writers, the basis of your proposal is your good idea, which should be strong, innovative and well-thought out (sincere). Your research should demonstrate that the problem you are addressing can be tackled and solved. If your idea is solid, even though there may be some flaws in the approach, you stand a good chance of being funded. Perhaps your first submission might come up short, but chances are that you will be successful in the second. You can always fix flaws in the approach, but an idea without substance is fatal for grant requests.

A good story involves the audience

Like a book that you can’t put down, good stories involve and affect the audience. I cried over the pains and struggles of the main characters in my father’s stories. He ensured my investment and involvement with the characters using a simple method. His stories resonated with basic universal truths that made me think, care, and ponder.

Proposal writers have an audience (reviewers) that already wants to become involved, which is half the battle. Your audience wants to find candidates for success, based on their knowledge of what is best for your area. The reviewers are experts on this subject because your area is their area. Walk them through your plan and its implementation (activities/methodology), and demonstrate that your outcomes match their measures for success (evaluation criteria). Your goal should always be to write about the importance of your intervention in a way that moves the readers and makes them want to fund your project.

A good story creates vivid images

The images my father created in his stories were almost visible, and made me feel as though I were in the scenes. I identified with the characters, and feared or loved them. As each story unfolded, I had a tendency to create my own images. This was what made the characters come to life.

If your stories help the listener to think of his or her own stories, you have succeeded in involving them in what you need. You can create these images through the “so what” question. Address the problem ahead of you, the impact you want to achieve, and the outcomes that will signal success for your beneficiaries and project, making each real to the audience. Even your evaluation plan can demonstrate your winning edge in the battle. If you stumble, the evaluator (the chorus of our Greek play) will show you the path to success.

A good story is perfect for your audience

In my father’s case, he had the audience in front of him, allowing him to study reactions and emotions carefully as he told stories. He was attuned to the effect the story was having and was thus able to keep my attention at all times. It always felt like each story was crafted just for me, which is exactly what he wanted to achieve.

As a proposal writer, you must know how you will be evaluated and, if possible, who the evaluators will be. Connecting with donors and reviewers is vital to successfully getting funded. The more you know about them, the more effectively you can spark their interest with your story. To accomplish this, you will need to do some research. For example, if you are writing to a foundation, you will need to know the background of the leadership and the board. If you are writing to a federal agency, find out what types of reviewers will be reading your proposal. You must know your readers and prepare properly for their review, so that they connect with and respect your work. You have to have the perfect story for you, your constituents, and for your evaluators.

The difference between a good story and a superficial one is that the latter provides too easy a solution. To avoid this, your interventions should be innovative, make a real and tangible difference, and touch the lives of your beneficiaries in a meaningful way. Your story should convey the overall impact of resolving the difficult problems for your constituents, and the role the donor plays in your intervention.

Mathilda Harris

Over the past 18 years, she has written grants, conducted capital campaigns, developed strategic plans for grant procurement, and assisted individuals and institutions to write winning proposals for various donors.

3 comments on “How to Win Grants with Great Storytelling

  1. Hi, I am a new grant writer and I want to perfect my storytelling skills, would you please mentor me? Is there an email where I can reach you? Thanks

  2. My name is Clifford Hicks, I am a storyteller. I tell stories about when I grew up in a valley here in Arizona. I lived on a small ranch in Greenlee County, North of Morenci just off the old 666 highway. The valley is called Eagle Creek.. At one time there was a one room school house where I studied until the sixth grade. I tell stories about events that happened before I went to school up until we moved into Clifton to finish my primary education. We had no electricity at home or in the school, nor did we have water pumped into our house or the school. I tell stories about going to school, and about the life and times of that era. I tell for an hour or more. Stories that would interest children from the 3rd grade to the 7th grade.
    I would like to have a grant so that I may go around rural Arizona libraries and take the young people back in time.
    Thank you,
    Clifford Hicks
    (address and phone removed)

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