Once upon a grant application...
Updated: Jan 13, 2022
Good grant applications include stories, great ones tell them too.
Last year, I gave a training on 'Storytelling for Non-Profits and NGOs'. In their feedback, one delegate said they would have liked to learn more about how to combine stories with grant writing. It's a comment that got me thinking - because for me, good grant writing isn't just about including stories, it's about telling them too.
Intrigued? Let me explain...
What's in a grant application?
You might wonder what a grant application and narrative story could possibly have in common. After all, a story is a story, and a grant application is well - a grant application. That means you're probably bound by online forms, unrealistic character counts and repetitive questions that reduce someone's life to a statistic, or worse, a 'cost per beneficiary'. Putting frustrations aside, it's important to take a step back from the day-to-day churn of grant applications and take a moment to think about what they involve.
I have been writing grant applications for over 10 years, and whilst I firmly believe that each and every piece is a mini work of art, when I start each piece, I also know that I am setting out to explain three key things:
The need: the baseline situation and need for your project or programme
The activity: your timeframe, project activities and 'intervention'
The result: think immediate outputs and long-term goals (outcomes).
Sound familiar? It should, and not just because these are the three basic ingredients for every grant application you will ever write, but because these are the foundations for every story ever told (well, maybe not 'every' - but read on, you'll soon see what I mean).
The narrative arc
It was Gustav Freytag who famously pinned down the five elements of what is now commonly known as the 'narrative' or 'dramatic' arc. In its original form, these included (but were not always limited to) an introduction, rising movement, climax, falling movement and denouement/catastrophe (he wrote tragedies, which explains the somewhat depressing nature of the fifth and final stage). Nowadays, however, this structure has evolved to suit modern narratives - moving smoothly from the 'exposition' and introduction, up to a climactic point, before winding down to the final resolution [1,2,3].
It might sound like something you study as part of a literature degree, but the basic concept is pretty simple. The idea of a narrative arc is to 'affect change' and 'move a character or situation from one state or another' (yes, I just quoted Wikipedia). Depending on whose philosophy you buy into, this happens over three to five stages and will almost assuredly include a beginning, middle, and end.
Or, to put it another way:
What does all this have to do with your grant application?
I get it. You're not writing a book, you're writing a grant application. But that doesn't mean the ideas above don't transfer. Like a good story, every grant application is looking to effect change and move a situation from one state to another. With this in mind, let's take a look at what happens when you apply the traditional narrative arc to a grant application structure.
It fits rather well, don't you think?
Bringing narrative form to the grant writing process
Am I stating the obvious? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Over the course of my career, I have written (and read) hundreds of grant applications. Structuring the narrative isn't easy, especially when you're dealing with multiple elements, project modules, activities and awkward application forms. But it is absolutely key. Too often I see need statements that wander, project descriptions that jump around, and an argument that just doesn't flow.
To build a strong and persuasive case for support, you need to pin each element of your project down and fit them together. You need to take your donor's hand and walk them through your proposal. Start at the beginning, work up to your climatic point, and share your vision for a long-term, sustainable resolution. Tell them a story. One that moves from one state to another.
Of course, this doesn't mean you create a fiction, over-dramatise or patronise. It means using the idea of a traditional narrative arc to give your proposal (and the questions within them) structure and narrative flow. It means finding and sharing your story and using this as a tool to create and inspire positive social action.
Taking your grant writing to the next level
Good storytelling isn't just about narrative structure. It is also about good writing, and it's more than okay to borrow a few stylistic tools to help bring your words to life and hammer your argument home. For me that means:
Dropping the jargon: So many organisations think that using big words and high-level language makes them sound clever, like the experts they purport to be. Yes, there is a time and place to play buzzword-bingo, but even then, beware! Good writing is readable writing, so say it simply and say it well.
Varying your sentence length: If you can’t get it out in one breath, it’s too long. Generally, I try and cap my sentences at 35 words, 40 at a push. Short sentences are great too. Mix them up. Use each sentence to bring rhythm and flow.
Being active, not passive: Generally speaking active phrases, (when the subject performs the action of the verb) are more impactful than passive ones. ‘Your gift could change a life’ definitely sounds better than ‘a life could be changed by your gift’!
Paying attention to semantics: Semantics matter, so take some time to consider yours. Are they beneficiaries or service users? Are you leading or facilitating? Training or capacity building? Doing or partnering? The devil is in the detail, and you need to make sure that your words are empowering and respectful.
Addressing the reader directly: Did you know a person's brain lights up when they hear their name, or you address them as 'you'? It's true. Remember, behind every grant application there is a person and it doesn't hurt to talk directly to them (just don't overdo it!) .
Adding stories and case studies
When writing a grant application you also need to represent and include the voice of your community and services users as much as possible. If application format, space and 'additional information' allows, why not try and work in a few extra...
Quotes: Bringing in a personal voice and using direct quote(s) gives your application credibility and authenticity, and is a great way to humanise what can be quite a sterile and impersonal process.
Vignettes: A snapshot or summary of a longer story or case study, a vignette (or 'slice of life') is a tool to share short but valuable insights into the lived experience of your community and service users.
Stories and case studies: Longer stories and case studies turn theory into action and create personal connections - drawing the reader in, cutting through the numbers and reminding us all what every grant application and proposal is all about. People.
Want to read more about the how and why of writing stories? Check out Episode 5 of last year's Step Change series.
So there you have it. If you really want to take your grant writing to the next level, you need to stop seeing your applications as applications, and start seeing them as a chance to share your (and your service user's) story. Enjoy the process. Find your narrative flow and take your donor on a journey that leaves them in no doubt of their final destination.