Storytelling: How to Tell Your Nonprofit’s Story When Applying for a Grant

An Impact100 Workshop
Thursday, November 13, 2014
St. Leo’s Catholic Church

With the start of the next Impact100 grant cycle, this workshop provided the perfect opportunity to present this year’s grant calendar and to introduce the new narrative format for the Letters of Inquiry (LOI) and grant applications. Co-President Celia Canfield welcomed more than 50 representatives from the nonprofit community and then handed the meeting over to the Impact100 Grants team: Constance Grizzell, Grants & Greater Impact Chair, Grace Meeks, Impact Grant Chair, and Diana Sanson, Community Grants Chair.

Together they presented the 2015 grant calendar highlighting key deadlines, such as submission of Letters of Inquiry (January 13) and full proposals (March 13) and the Annual Meeting on May 30. This year, more of the financial information will be requested at the LOI stage – three years of financials for the Impact Grant and one for Community Grants. The only other big change will be a narrative format of the application which allows the nonprofits to tell a compelling story about their programs.

Those announcements were a perfect segue to the heart of the workshop facilitated by Karen Roche, President of Streetwise Reports and Chair of the Impact100 Financial Review Committee (FRC) and Madeleine Kahn, a nonprofit educator and expert grant writer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs Chair of the FRC, Karen was the perfect person to answer an important question: “What do we look at when we are looking at your financials?” She provided sample financial statements (see image below) and emphasized the importance of making sure that the Balance Sheet and the Profit and Loss statement numbers match! Any discrepancies raise a potential “red flag” and therefore should be explained in the budget narrative. If additional clarity is needed, then the FRC will prepare a set of questions which will be sent to the nonprofit for a response.

Sample Financials The other key role of the FRC is to examine the Project Budget. She provided two examples (see image below) and asked the attendees to compare the two. It was clear that the first version left too many unanswered questions, whereas the second provided the level of detail reflective of a well thought out project.

Project Budget_Page_1

Both Karen and Madeleine recommended making use of the Foundation Center in San Francisco for help in all aspects of grant-writing, and in particular for their webinars and other resources dealing with budgets and financials.

Following an opportunity to ask questions regarding the financial/budgetary side of the application, Madeleine pointed out that the comparison of the two fictional budgets above illustrated an important tenet to keep in mind: Version #1 makes sense to you because you already know all about your program.  But version #2 is for the person “who does not live in your head. We do not know anything about your program. You need to tell us.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMadeleine guided the participants in an interactive session to develop a program narrative based on version two of the Trail Days Program Budget (above). She asked everyone to pair up (preferably with someone they did not know) and to imagine the program that matched the budget. As people shared their ideas, she encouraged greater detail by responding with some challenging questions: Why do teens need to be outside? What kinds of skills are they acquiring? Why are those important skills? How will you know they achieved those skills? How will the students be recruited?  Who is on your staff that knows how to work with teens? Why are you the right organization for this program? Why should I fund it?

So as they listened to one another’s responses, the participants realized the level of detail that was required and the number of questions that needed to be answered. This awareness reflects back on the original tenet: “Your readers do not live inside your head. You need to make your program come alive.”

working 5working 6

Throughout the activity, Madeleine shared many other suggestions for consideration. Some of these are captured below:

  • True collaborations take time.
  • Make sure that your budget reflects the needs of your program.
  • Grab the reader at the start. There is no single “best order” for writing the narrative – make it fit your organization. Would a testimonial be helpful?
  • After the hook, what comes next? The WHAT – what you are doing. “We expect… We have in place…  You do not want the reader to have to search for things.  In the past we have….”
  • Write this as if you are talking to your friend, e.g. “We discovered that…” rather than the passive voice of “It is well known that…”  Use your voice: “The most important phone call I ever received …. Here at *** organization….  Every year we get calls like this. With more funding we could… We already have in place x, y, and z.  Here is what we are going to do.”
  • “Specificity is next to godliness – whenever you can use details, it shows that this has been well thought out.
  • Write the compelling story and then go back and fit in subtitles that will guide the reader. The subtitles can vary in format: single words, quotes, the guiding question provided.

As the workshop came to a close, Grace reminded attendees to check the website for additional information about applications and eligibility. This year there is a slight change in the number of grants an organization may apply for.  There is a maximum of TWO grants only: the Impact Grant plus one of the Community Grants or any two of the Community Grants.

Many thanks to both Madeleine and Karen for their time and expertise and their enthusiasm shared with all of us.