How a basic understanding of journalism and essay writing can help your nonprofit craft stronger stories to create a grant proposal that will persuade more supporters to fund your cause.

A waitlist of people in need serve as Anna’s daily reminder of the ever-growing demands her nonprofit faces. She desperately needs to develop a strong grant strategy and grab funding to fuel her organization’s programs.

Yet, she’s strapped for time, a little bit overwhelmed by writing a grant proposal and only slightly aware of the grant funding opportunities that would align with her cause.

So, where to even start? 

This post to improve your grant writing helps nonprofits like Anna’s, diminishing the overwhelm and providing a clear path to create that funding success.

As we get started, don’t forget to grab your free packet of tools to start your grant strategy, including a Grant Research + Calendar tool, Grant Cheat Sheet template, tutorial on how to use Trello for grants and more. (Access grant toolkit here)

How to Start Your Story

Creating a solid grant proposal requires a mix of writing skills to develop a convincing narrative that pitches your cause. I’ll discuss two types of writing processes that are helpful to understand when crafting your story. 

First, some basic journalism skills. I hold a bachelor’s degree in journalism and worked several years in the industry fine tuning this writing process. I went back to my school notes (yes, I still have a box of college notes!) to bring you the basics for this foundation. 

So, here’s your journalism 101 lesson. 

The 6 elements of news. We need to flip through the 6 elements, consider the story at hand, and decide the most appropriate dominating factor to write the story around. The 6 elements include:

  • Conflict: war, but also simple disagreements
  • Impact: the more people affected, the bigger the news
  • Novelty: what is different, unusual or extraordinary?
  • Prominence: standouts: skyscrapers, politicians, athletes, etc.
  • Proximity: relevance to a local or other geographic audience
  • Timeliness: what is new?

Generally, when a journalist is writing a news story, one of these factors is the reason the story is important. While there may be more than one element present, only one is chosen to lead and dominate the way the story is told. 

At your nonprofit, take some time to write down the 6 elements and brainstorm some story leads below each category. This will help you develop ideas to create different narratives for your grant proposals, and these narratives can also help you uncover ties to specific funding opportunities.

Triangulation. A solid story relies on a strong foundation. In the journalism world, the story should be rounded following the rule of triangulation, also remembered as the 3-legged stool. 

First, our sources: experts and officials that explain why, how and what will happen in the story. This may very well be you, as the nonprofit, as well as organization partners or other professionals within your industry. For example, a pediatric cancer foundation may reference information from medical staff in that field.

Second, data and documents. We need to be able to analyze the story and back it up with solid data and explain those numbers. This could be outside research and reports, internal surveys and impact tracking within your nonprofit and so forth.

Third: affected people. Tell the story of those who are living the numbers. Depending on the age of your nonprofit, you may have real-life stories to share or simply anecdotal tales that turn the numbers into human stories.

Develop a strong lede. The lede is the opening of the story that gets the news upfront (whichever of the 6 elements of news you decided will dominate the story). The lede immediately reduces uncertainty about the news and provides essential context for the story.

Generally, you’ll use what the industry calls a soft lede for your nonprofits’ stories, because you’re not really focusing on timely or “breaking news” stories, especially for grants. While you may apply for funding that feels timely because of the nature of a program, the need to buy a building soon, and so forth – generally, you can find a different one of the 6 elements that will help you to best illustrate your need for the building or other timely program.

Here are 5 types of soft ledes to consider:

  • Then and now: Something that might read like: this was then, but now it is this. This is useful for trend stories, something that shows an identifiable change. 
  • Scene setter: This describes the area where the story is occuring, and is useful only when that location is very important to the story. For example, if the do work overseas and it is essential to understand more about the living conditions where the people you serve live.
  • Shocker: This is a simple sentence that contains an amazing fact or quote – something that should “knock the socks off” the reader. When an element of your work or a program your nonprofit is trying to fund is just so unique or rare, this is a great start.
  • Anecdotal: This is great when you have an impacted person to tell a story about, or you can set the scene with a fictional person who exemplifies the general population you serve. Generally, the story feels most complete if you can tie back to the person or anecdote at the end. 
  • Irony: Use this to show a contrast in something you are working on.

Immediately following a soft lede, we must remember to insert what is called a nutgraf. The nutgraf adds the context to the opening of the story, answering the essential questions that defines the “news” or, in a nonprofit’s case, need. We want to answer all or as many of the 5 Ws: who, what, where, when and why – in the nutgraf. 

But, grant writing isn’t journalism. 

You’re right! Remember, I mentioned two types of writing processes that are useful to consider when developing your grant writing craft. After you’ve fused the above journalistic concepts into your style, we can now look at the essence of essay writing and how that will help create a convincing proposal.

Leverage a thesis: A thesis is the theory explained as the premise which will be proven within the essay. All of the content within the story supports this main theory, emphasizing its importance. When your thesis reflects the reason you need funding, you can leverage its presence to prove your need,

Types of essays. While there are many, many types of essays – there are two that I would like to call attention to in order to influence your writing approach while creating grant proposals.

  • Descriptive essay: This type of essay really paints a picture of the story, using as many sensory words and details as possible to allow the reader to feel the story. This is an important experience when requesting funds for your nonprofit, because the more people feel connected emotionally to something – the easier it is to say yes. 
  • Persuasive essay: This type of essay presents the facts of the story but in a way that works to convince the reader about your viewpoint. In other words, leverage data and analysis to support the thesis you’ve created for your cause.

Create an outline: if you’re a visual person, using a basic circle diagram can help you start to organize your ideas. Draw a circle in the middle with the main topic, and extend additional circles out from this root idea as you brainstorm the conversation points around your topic. 

When you feel you have  a strong list of ideas, review that list and see which points stand out. Does this list help you identify one of the 6 news elements to create the bloodline of the story? Run with it.

Write down the main items you’re going to include in an ordered list, as well as important details, data, sources, and affected people (triangulation!) wherever relevant.  You’ll want to create an order to these concepts that then helps move from painting the picture and explaining the problem, to showcasing solutions and convincing that funding your nonprofit makes the funder a hero. 

Here’s a basic outline that will help you create that order and write a proposal story for most grants. 

You can also grab our grant cheat sheet template to start filling in the blanks on the essential questions funders ask, and download our grant tracker calendar to start easily managing your applications today.

  • Emotional Hook: presenting the problem & urgency
  • Vision for a better future
  • History of the organization 
  • Explanation of programs
  • Outcomes and Proof of Impact 
  • Statement of financial needs: How much does your organization need, and for what?

Remember Anna?

Anna realized a strong grant takes time, and she needed to start with baby steps. She uses tools such as our grant cheat sheet and the grant tracker calendar to submit monthly grant applications and start serving her waitlist.