Storytelling for Grantseekers: A Guide to Creative Nonprofit Fundraising

Storytelling for Grantseekers: A Guide to Creative Nonprofit Fundraising

by Cheryl A. Clarke

ISBN: 9780470381229

Publisher Jossey-Bass

Published in Business & Investing/Small Business & Entrepreneurship

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

First Steps

Getting Ready for Grantseeking

As any writer will tell you, a lot of preparation usually takes place before any words are actually written. This is also true for grantseekers. First comes the idea, the inspiration. For storytellers, ideas are sparked in their rich imaginations. With nonprofit agencies, ideas can be generated by a variety of people working for or with the agency. Most frequently, it is the executive director or program director who initially conceives an idea for a new program or project that will need new funding in order to be implemented. Or the plan may be simply to keep an existing program going. In either case, the nonprofit agency needs money, and it is decided (generally by the executive director or development director) that approaching grantmakers is a good strategy for securing the necessary funding. But before you or anyone else in your agency begins to draft a grant proposal, additional steps must be taken.


It is not unusual for storytellers, and specifically writers, to conduct extensive research before they begin to draft their stories. Some retreat to the library, where they read everything they can about a particular topic. Others try to get firsthand experience. Authors have been known to take flying lessons, spend a season working on a fishing vessel, or volunteer at a dude ranch in order to prepare for writing their stories.

Grantwriters should be equally prepared. Before attempting to write a proposal, learn as much about your agency as you possibly can. True, we all get busy and overcommitted in our work and daily lives, but spending a day out in the field is priceless. Observe or experience your agency's work firsthand. Talk to the clients your agency helps. Spend a day shadowing your agency's program director, social worker, artistic director, or education coordinator. I guarantee that you will soak up more information than you ever would by visiting your agency's Web site or reading your agency's annual report. Nothing substitutes for being in the field-nothing.


After a program idea has been formulated, the next step is to assess whether the proposed program or project is fundable. The reality is that not all ideas will germinate into fundable programs or projects. It's a bit of a jungle out there in the grantseeking world. Only the fittest survive. So how does an agency determine whether a proposed program or project is likely to be funded? Consider the following questions:

Is the program or project compatible with the agency's central mission or purpose? (I've seen too many nonprofit agencies chase potential grant dollars by developing programs that were not aligned with their core mission simply to apply for available grant funding. This is letting the tail wag the dog. Do not be tempted to do that. Rather, create only programs that further your agency's mission. Then seek grant funding for those programs. Be assured that if your agency's work serves a critical need, there are foundations and corporations out there willing to provide funds.) Does your agency have the expertise and staff resources to carry out the program?

Can your agency manage the proposed expansion of services?

Is the proposed program distinguishable from other similar programs in the community? If so, what specific niche will this program or project fill?

If other agencies are doing similar work, has your agency explored opportunities for collaboration?

Is there internal support from the board of directors and senior staff for the proposed program?

If your agency can answer yes to each of these questions, then it is well on its way to developing a fundable program. If any answer is no, then perhaps your agency is heading down the wrong path-a road not likely to lead to grant funding.

For example, if your agency does not have the necessary staff expertise to launch a new initiative, it should not pursue grant funding until it has addressed this issue. Consider what could be done to acquire people with the necessary experience and qualifications. This may mean increasing the new program's budget, thereby enabling the agency to hire the additional staff needed. Or it may mean recruiting unpaid volunteers who can be trained to do the work. Another possible alternative is for the agency to explore collaborating with another nonprofit organization that has the appropriate staff expertise.

The point I want to make is that nonprofit agencies are most likely to secure grants when they develop fundable programs. From ideas spring new programs, new initiatives, and these can be bold and inventive, yet they must also present the likelihood of success. If a program seems doomed to failure from its inception, no funder is likely to want to invest in it.


Our challenge is to present to potential funders the most persuasive, creative, and well-written grant proposals that describe the very best programs and initiatives-that is, the ones most likely to succeed in efficiently and effectively delivering valuable services to agency clients. Unfortunately, just as some literary rubbish ends up in the bookstores (and even on the best-sellers list), bad proposals describing bad ideas arrive in the in-boxes of foundation program officers every single day. A veteran program officer, much like a seasoned literary agent, has seen it all-from the very best to the very worst. In fact, most program officers can classify a proposal into one of four basic categories, as Joel Orosz does in his book The Insider's Guide to Grantmaking (Jossey-Bass, 2000).

First, there's the bad idea-bad proposal, which is a deadly combination. It's the proposal that presents an idea that is ill conceived, underdeveloped, or just plain unworkable. The proposal isn't even well written, making it all the easier for the program officer to toss the submission into the reject pile. These are easy ones for the program officer to dispense with.

The second type of proposal is the devious bad idea-good proposal. Narratives like this are often the products of professional grantwriters, masters of the fine art of spinning golden words. Masquerading under slick, sophisticated writing lurks a really bad or weak program idea. But with a smoothly crafted proposal, it's harder to recognize it. Yet don't kid yourself-the vast majority of program officers are going to see right through the veil of crafty wordplay. A proposal that falls into this category is not likely to get funded either.

More frustrating are submissions that fall into the good idea-bad proposal category. With these proposals, the gem of an idea truly worthy of funding lies buried under disorganized, sloppy, or terrible writing. Most program officers are willing to make the journey and try to find the treasure, provided they see a flicker of a good, or even brilliant, idea. Sadly, a few won't bother, and thus some truly wonderful programs or projects won't get funded.

Proposal submissions in the final category are of course a joy to behold and read. These are the ones that present a well-developed idea by telling a good story. These are the "10s," the ones that get four stars, the ones that should win the Pulitzer Prize. It should be no surprise that these are the grant proposals that have the best chance of being funded. In a philanthropic environment where the ratio of submitted to funded proposals is often ten to one or twelve to one (with some funders it can even be as daunting as twenty to one), excellence is what you should be striving for.


Not all stories are ready to be told. Grantwriters have to know when they have a compelling, urgent story to tell and when there are serious loose ends to tidy up before pen should be put to paper (or, in today's nonprofit office, before the computer should be turned on). I am talking about those unusual circumstances when the grantseeking process (and, for that matter, possibly all fundraising activities) should be temporarily halted. For in a nonprofit agency's life, there may be times when it is prudent to stop fundraising until the crisis has passed.

What times are these? Whenever the agency's credibility is in doubt and its ability to do its work is called into question. For example, the following situations may require a pause in grantseeking:

When there is extremely high turnover on the board of directors

When a seriously difficult executive director transition is occurring

When the agency has been rocked by public scandal or has received extremely negative press

When there is inadequate staff to plan and implement the program for which funding is sought

In each of the situations just described (or other such extenuating circumstances that merit a temporary suspension of fundraising activities, including grantseeking), the agency needs to get its house in order before fundraising can proceed. There is a simple reason for this. When making funding decisions, grantmakers look for agencies that are fiscally stable, that demonstrate competence and the ability to do good, solid work, that have steady internal leadership (for example, from the board of directors and chief executive officer), that are respected in the community, and that are trustworthy. Agencies experiencing one or more of the challenges just listed are therefore at an extreme disadvantage when seeking grant funding. Other agencies without these troubling issues present a stronger case for support. And although it is precisely during such trying times that a nonprofit agency is most likely to be in need of contributed dollars, asking for grant support is likely to be frustrating or even futile, and it may even jeopardize future opportunities for funding.

To be successful at grantseeking, you must tell your agency's story from a position of organizational strength.


In grantseeking, as with all fundraising activities, it is critical for anyone working on a proposal to know specifically what the agency is raising money for. The financial needs of a nonprofit agency fall into six broad categories. So far, I have referred to only one of those six, which is program or project support. (Note that a project is a task-something of limited duration-whereas a program is something likely to continue indefinitely.) The other five categories of financial needs are the following:

Funds for capital or equipment purchases. This is so-called bricks-and-sticks or bricks-and-mortar funding, which includes funding for things like building or renovating facilities, acquiring raw land, or purchasing large pieces of equipment, such as vehicles, computers, telephone systems, or medical testing devices.

Endowment funds. Think of these as an agency's piggy bank. They're like savings or retirement accounts. Money is prudently invested, and the interest earned is used to support the agency's programs, projects, and general operations.

Funds for technical development or capacity building. Such funds help an agency gain expertise that will enable it to move to the next level. This includes, for example, management, financial, and fundraising training.

Seed funding. These are funds for brand-new start-up agencies. This is crucial incubation money that helps an agency get established.

General operating funds. These are funds that cannot otherwise be placed in a program or project budget and that cover all of an agency's day-to-day expenses, such as salaries, rent, insurance, and supplies.

Grantmakers frequently limit their funding to one or two specific financial needs. A great number fund new or continuing programs or projects. Other foundations award grants only for capital projects. Some prefer to assist fledgling organizations by providing seed funding. A significant number help nonprofits, frequently those they already support with program or operating grants, from the inside by giving technical assistance and capacity-building grants. A few make gifts to establish or increase endowments. And finally, there are those cherished foundations that make unrestricted grants, which can be used to support an agency's general operations.

Be aware that your agency is likely to have multiple financial needs at any given time. Certainly, every nonprofit agency has an ongoing need for general operating support in order to pay its basic bills and to make its payroll. The vast majority of nonprofit agencies will also need funds to support services and programs. From time to time, many agencies will have capital or equipment needs. Matching the right funder with your agency's specific financial needs is extremely important and is discussed more fully in Chapter Two.

The fact that every nonprofit I know needs funding is not surprising. The fact that some nonprofits don't have a clear understanding of what they need funding for is. I occasionally get phone calls that go something like this:

Executive Director: Hi. I'm calling because we need a grant.

Me: For what?

Executive Director: Money.

Me: For what?

Executive Director: Money.

You get the point. Executive directors and nonprofit staff generally know they need funding, but they can't always articulate what they need the funds for. And if they can't express the need to you or me, we won't be able to do a very good job telling a prospective funder. When approaching grantmakers, it is essential that we clearly state what the grant, if awarded, will fund.


If your agency has a fundable idea to present to potential grantmakers, then the next question to address is whether you are well prepared and personally ready to tell your agency's story.

No matter whether you're an old-timer or a brand-new employee, you should not begin to write a grant proposal until you are adequately prepared. And all grantseekers are better prepared if they know as much as possible about the nonprofit agency they work for and the field the agency works in (such as education, social justice, health care, or the visual arts). As previously noted, I recommend that from time to time you get out of your office to see and experience the actual work your agency does. You may have worked for the same organization for several years, perhaps having held several different positions in the agency, and may already be very knowledgeable. Or you may be new to your agency and perhaps even to the nonprofit sector. If that is the case, preparing a grant proposal is a great way for you to become well acquainted with your agency and the field in general.

This is one of the things I love most about grantwriting: you get to wear many hats! In addition to writer, you are also a reporter and a researcher.

Be a Reporter

To tell your agency's story effectively, you first need information, and to get information, you must often play the role of reporter. In this capacity, you will frequently find it necessary and appropriate to interview various staff members at your agency, such as the program director, finance director, personnel director, and executive director. Armed with a reporter's notepad, you must get the specifics from these individuals before you can begin to prepare a grant proposal.

For example, suppose that you are a grantwriter working for a nonprofit blood bank in a major urban area; the blood bank is having difficulty recruiting blood donors from the city's largest ethnic population. The blood bank's executive director thinks that to increase blood donations, it would be a good idea for the center to hire an outreach coordinator who can focus recruitment efforts on this ethnic community. The executive director hopes this program will be funded through grants from foundations in the community and asks you to draft the proposal. As a resourceful reporter, what do you need to do?


Excerpted from "Storytelling for Grantseekers: A Guide to Creative Nonprofit Fundraising" by Cheryl A. Clarke. Copyright © 0 by Cheryl A. Clarke. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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