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Grantwriting Tip: Cast Your Agency as a Hero, Not a Superhero

By Cheryl A. Clarke

An excerpt from the book Storytelling for Grantseekers: The Guide to Creative Nonprofit Fundraising

(May 5, 2009) When writing the goals and objectives section of a foundation grant proposal, grant seekers are like sci-fi writers. They envision the future. Of course, there is one critical difference: whereas sci-fi writers generally present fantasy, grant seekers discuss what is realistic and feasible.

To understand this concept, it may help to think in visual terms. Take a mental snapshot of the community where your nonprofit agency does its work today, at this very moment. What is the problem of unmet need that your agency addresses? Who are the people served by your agency? What more could your agency do if it had additional funds?

Now imagine taking a second mental photograph of the same community at the end of the projected grant period. Compare it with the earlier snapshot. What’s different? How has the need been met? How have the clients been served? Most important, how have the lives of your agency’s clients been positively changed? You should “see” a noticeable difference between these two mental snapshots.

How the community and your story’s main characters (your agency’s clients) will have changed is portrayed in the goals and objectives section of a grant proposal. The challenge in writing this portion of the proposal story is to vividly and accurately describe to the reader what can be seen in the two mental photographs just mentioned. The change that occurs helps resolve the conflict (the problem or need).

Readers appreciate a story that has a believable, satisfying resolution. Program officers and others reviewing grant proposals do too. The validity of your request for grant funding hinges on whether the resolution of the conflict rings true. If it doesn’t, no matter how well the story is written or told, it falls flat and short of the mark.

Be the Hero, Not the Superhero

How do goals and objectives fit into the storytelling metaphor? In the best stories, characters don’t do anything that isn’t believable, especially at the climactic, pivotal moment. If they act otherwise, the storyteller risks losing the audience’s trust and interest. This is also true in proposal writing.

Accordingly, nonprofit agencies should present themselves as heroes, not superheroes. They can do the possible, not the impossible. Your nonprofit agency probably will not be able to save the planet. What your agency does is much more realistic: it has a positive impact on people living in the community—pretty heroic work in its own right.

In a Western the cowboy hero doesn’t rescue countless fair maidens who are tied to the train tracks; he only saves one. That’s realistic. That’s believable. When writing objectives for a particular agency’s program or project, keep them realistic.

So what’s realistic? The answer to this question is going to vary considerably from agency to agency and from program to program. What’s realistic depends on several factors. These include, but certainly are not limited to, the complexity of the identified problem, the maturity of the program and how long it has been in existence, the specific nature of the agency’s response to the problem, the receptiveness of its clients to the agency’s response, and the experience and expertise of agency staff. In some situations a 5 percent positive change would be considered terrific. Under other conditions a respectable figure might be 15 or 25 percent. It all depends on what is truly realistic given the circumstances.

However, stating that your nonprofit agency will be able to double its service capacity and effect a 100 percent transformation of its clients is likely to raise an eyebrow. At first blush, this appears to be a huge change. Therefore a program officer most certainly will wonder, “Is this objective possible? Is it realistic?”

It is, of course, possible for a nonprofit agency to substantially increase its services during the relatively short one-year grant period. If so, your proposal story must thoroughly explain how such a dramatic increase is feasible. If your agency’s proposal is not convincing on this point, then your agency probably won’t get the grant.

Cheryl Clarke is a fundraising consultant and trainer, and an award-winning writer of short stories. Her book, Storytelling for Grantseekres: The Guide to Creative Nonprofit Fundraising, is available in the AFP Bookstore. She is also co-author of the book, Grant Proposal Makeover: Transform Your Request from No to Yes.

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