James was a grant writer for a nonprofit that worked with children. Passion fueled his work because he knew the work his organization did improved the lives of hundreds of children every year. He applied for grants to help his NPO expand its reach, but lately, he’s run into a bit of a snag. He’s heard “no” a few too many times, and had a major case of writer’s block to remedy the situation. Until he started using more storytelling with his grants.
Storytelling is a great way to liven up your grant proposals, capture your readers’ attention and add more emotional connection to your cause. There are several ways to collect these stories, but the best way is to conduct interviews with people that have benefited from your nonprofit’s work. As a journalist, interviews are a necessary tool to every single story I wrote. They support the angle I was writing about and provide perspective to points made in my article. The same techniques used to get quotes for a newspaper story can be used to enhance your grant requests.
Before you get started, you need to know what you want from the interviews. What story do you want to tell? Are you after emotional stories that demonstrate the impact of your organization? The impact your donors have made to help your mission? How your volunteers have changed the community? The outcome of the stories will change what questions you ask and who you select to interview.
Most of the time you know who has been positively impacted by your organization, but feel free to put out a call for volunteers to assist you with your project. These can be not only people who are on the receiving end of your services, but also those who work and volunteer with your NPO. Try to find a good balance of subjects that have experienced your nonprofit in different ways or through different programs. Make sure the participants know how you plan to use the interview. Have them sign an acknowledgement that allows you to use their stories in your grants and perhaps promotional materials.
Don’t just settle for interviewing one or two people. Try to interview a half dozen to get a good variety of stories and perspectives on your services. Also, avoid providing them with specific questions before the interview. You can give them the topics you want to talk about, but if they don’t know the exact wording of the questions it will help their answers come off as more real and honest.
Mark Goldstein of Communication Mark outlines three questions you should ask every time you interview someone about your NPO:
- What need brought you to our organization?
- What services did we provide to you?
- How did the service improve your life?
These questions will provide a good baseline and starting point to elicit useable answers. They cover the how, what and why for your organization. Plus, these answers will directly apply to what you are going to write in your grant proposal. You will need to ask more probing questions, and figure out how to get them to tell a story on how your nonprofit really benefited their lives. It might not come out on the first question, so be patient.
Those shouldn’t be the only questions. Brainstorm questions that fit the outcome you seek. Don’t stick to a script though. Let the interview flow like a natural conversation. Ask follow up questions and try to keep probing if they make broad, vague statements—but at the same time, don’t be too pushy.
While phone interviews will work, you should do everything possible to do them in person. It allows you to have more control over the interview, read the interviewee’s nonverbals and make a better personal connection during the interview. Listen to what they are saying and adapt the course of the interview based on the subject’s responses, and don’t let any vague statements slip by. It also helps to record or videotape the interview for accuracy and use later.
After the interview, be sure to send a note of thanks to the participant. They were the ones who gave their time and helped you out, so be grateful. A simple note can go a long way to reinforce their positive experience with your nonprofit.
Once you sit down and start writing, you should put these quotes in the ‘needs’ or ‘project goals’ portion of your proposal. By showing how your organization helped the cause indicates the need is real and you have the ability to make a difference. These stories will get beyond statistics and attach a name and story to your cause. If the stories are too long and you can’t bring yourself to cut them down, consider including them as an attachment to your grant proposal.
So get out there and start talking to people. Interviews, if done properly, can make your grant proposals stand out and humanize the work you are doing. You don’t just have to limit using your stories for grant proposals. You can add them to your donor drives, promotional materials and annual reports, but again, make sure your subjects know how you plan to use their stories. Next time you find yourself in James’ situation and stuck with your grant proposal, try using interviews to enhance them. They might just be the story you’re missing.