How (and Why) to use stories to win grants


Have you seen this year’s Amazon holiday ad ? It’s been praised for “striking the right chord” this season. The ad is about two old friends who meet for tea and find they share a problem. The friends happen to be a priest and an imam, which provides the timely twist. The subtle selling of Amazon Prime hardly intrudes, and it is the simple story itself that seems to resonate with viewers, who will presumably remember these warm feelings when considering their next online purchase.

This insertion of feeling into the decision making process is why storytelling can be so powerful a marketing tool.

Storytelling  has been a hot topic for several years, embraced by the business world to market and sell, and more recently by nonprofits to engage stakeholders. Dan Pink identified Story as one of six essential right brain “senses” or aptitudes for this age. He defines it as the effective use of narrative in our attempts to convince or sell. Pink believes that most of our thinking is actually organized as stories, which may be why we gravitate toward them.


Why Story?

Stories can quickly build a relationship with an audience by embracing our shared humanity. Presenting real, relatable people connects the viewer/reader to the outcome so that they continue to pay attention.

Jonah Sachs calls storytelling “the only tool that has ever moved minds and changed behavior.”

For grantwriters storytelling is an efficient tool for persuasion as it appeals to emotions like empathy and hope. Stories create emotional affinity based on shared values. They can achieve this by example rather than thorough factual exposition, and are thus more interesting to experience. Effective stories make your mission more tangible, allowing the funder to imagine results and to see their goal realized by supporting you.

What did you feel after watching the Amazon Prime ad? Getting funders to feel that way after reading your proposal is why you need stories!


Remember your purpose

Let’s step back and review your goal. In each grant application you submit, no matter the format or specific questions, you need to convincingly answer three guiding questions:

Why now?

Why you?

Why them?

The way you answer these questions determines your success.

We discussed the art of persuasion and using the three rhetorical strategies of ethos, pathos and logos to convince the funder to choose your proposal. This is more effective than simply offering the details of your program because it generates stronger reactions, which in turn influence decisions. Storytelling supercharges this approach by allowing you to present the information in a way that engages and inspires.

Funders read a lot of applications.

Make yours memorable by including stories that surprise and move them.

Good grantwriting, like other forms of persuasion, requires practice and thinking. You might work through several drafts or do a lot of tweaking over a period of time to find the wording that best conveys the essence of your proposal. In working through this process, however, you’ll be honing your message, assessing your organization from every angle and gaining clarity of purpose


So what does a story look like and how can I write one?

Stories involve people, events and meaning. They are all around you but the key to finding stories that inspire is to center them on Why you do what you do – your organizational purpose. This creates an emotional bond with people who share it. Describing How and What you do might be interesting but it won’t inspire trust and hope, and won’t drive a decision toward you. (More on this approach.)

Various organizing structures are used in storytelling to make them emotive and memorable. Most stories have a beginning, middle and end, though they may not proceed in that order. Nonprofit stories can take many forms:

Narrative arc – A straightforward layout of the setting, characters, problem and solution.

Story mountain – A similar but more powerful form that moves from exposition to rising action, climax and resolution. The audience is left feeling uplifted and motivated to take action.

Cliffhanger – A form that leaves the reader unsure of the ending, and then (in grantwriting) brings the funder in to save the day.

Hero’s Journey – A classic form in which the hero leaves home on an adventure, undergoes an ordeal and returns transformed or rewarded. This may work well in telling the story of someone whose life has been changed by your work.

Plot twist – A story that suddenly takes the reader in an unexpected direction. This can highlight more subtle program impacts in a stronger way.

Tragedy or crisis– The use of one person’s story to explain a current societal problem. This form exposes the need for your work, and doesn’t have a positive ending. It showcases what is at stake if the issue goes unresolved.

Comedy – A light hearted story that allows for a release of tension in the discussion of a serious topic. It might focus on some mishap or confusion leading to conflict before resolution.

Rebirth or redemption – A story that shows the power of support in changing life’s trajectory.

Narrative hook – This form jumps into the middle of the story action to grab the reader, then goes back to tell the beginning and ending. It focuses attention on a pivotal point.

Against all odds – The story of someone overcoming obstacles aided by your work. Similar to a Hero’s journey. Underdogs get a lot of sympathy, so this is one to consider.

Unusual perspective – A story told by a third person or by more than one people. Their different perspectives yield interesting contrasts: a program provider or volunteer and a beneficiary, for example. This form provides depth and strength.

Genesis – The story of how your organization began, what motivated its founders to begin this work. These classic stories can generate loyalty and support.


There are also a few very relevant short story alternatives that you can use throughout your application:

Story moment – An instant of grace that makes a meaningful connection, makes people laugh or smile or feel good about your work. These vignettes don’t need a traditional plot or structure, yet they can still be quite immersive. Observing your program implementations often yields such story moments, which may be as simple as an overheard comment.

Anecdote – A short story that makes complex issues easy to understand. Anecdotes can interest, educate and inspire potential funders. Some forms include before and after (to prove impact), contrasting what is with what is possible (to fuel a desire for change), and personal profile (to showcase the promise of your work). Maintain and grow a collection of anecdotes from various stakeholders.

Testimonial – A form of story that offers proof. Find the person closest to the “center” of your mission and use their testimonial to inspire further action. Similar to anecdotes, but more targeted and opinionated. Collect these as well.

Numerical – The use of data or statistics to tell a story according to one of the structures above. Create familiar yet fresh analogies to shift the data from theoretical to relatable and real. Be very targeted so you don’t overwhelm or bore the reader. Discuss the evolution of a single piece of evidence to make one important point. Be able to back up every statistic.


You can place your stories different ways within a grant application:

– Begin with an anecdote to draw the reader into your proposal narrative. But instead of just starting to detail a story that may not be very relatable, first offer a universally felt statement to avoid losing the reader’s interest.  Find a way into the story that will work for most any reader, a universal truth relevant to the story that sparks curiosity, then go into specifics.

– Include testimonials later in the narrative to make a strong impact in support of your overall proposal. Include them where they can generate trust in your ability to have impact.

– Funders want to act. Pitch your call to action at the right moment, just when they feel empowered to help you make effective change.


Whichever form you choose, your stories should :

  • be grounded in your organization’s values
  • be clear about why the reader should care (address their mission and goals)
  • be compelling
  • motivate
  • highlight the battle your community faces and what is at stake (what are you working for?)
  • draw the reader into the story, so that they feel the need and urgency of your mission (use tension, suspense)
  • wait to reveal your solution and the outcome so that the reader feels rewarded and wants to continue reading your full proposal
  • provide the reader, your funder, a way to see themselves in the story by showing how their support helps bring about the positive ending


Final thoughts about your narrative:

Take the funder’s point of view in your final editing phase. Consider the questions they’ll have about your organization and your proposal and make sure you’ve answered them.  Have you told them exactly how their gift will make a difference?

Bring your narrative to a compelling end. Leave the reader with both a sense of urgency by describing the loss that will occur if they decide against you, and a sense of motivation by highlighting what they’ll gain by funding your proposal (remember their mission too!).


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Image: Fitz Henry Lane, Lumber Schooners at Evening on Penobscot Bay,