I was teaching a class last night on writing foundation proposals, and I made the statement that the most successful proposals tell a really good story. How can you find your organization’s story?
Stories are all around you. They are in the thank you cards your program receives, the messages on the machine in your office, in emails, conversations, and in speeches at recognition events. If your program isn’t in the habit of collecting stories, you need to make it a top priority. Actively seek them out by sending surveys to your clients and donors. Get in the habit of keeping a tape recorder handy, and set up a comment page on your website, encouraging visitors to tell you how your organization has changed their life.
What makes a good story? A good story tells a story and presents a slice of life – it’s specific and real, alive and full of voice. Consider the following story:
“The XYZ organization is truly wonderful. Their program really helped me get my family back on the right track.” — Mary Harper
The enthusiasm is clear here, but how did the XYZ organization help, and who is Mary Harper? See the difference here:
“XYZ’s after school science program gave my son a safe place to go when I started my new job, and it gave me some valuable peace of mind.” – Mary Harper, single mother of three, was a pilot member of the XYZ program.
Even this brief, one sentence story tells a story, and the byline adds to the story by providing useful context.
You can recruit stronger stories by asking specific questions in your surveys. Instead of asking questions like, “How was your experience in the program?” (- “It was great!”), ask: “What aspects of the program were most valuable to you? And why?” If you don’t get the specific response you’re looking for in a story, don’t hesitate to contact your client, colleague, donor or board member. Thank them for their response and tell them that you have a few follow up questions. Ask permission to record their response and share their story. You will find most people enthusiastic to lend their voices, but it’s a good idea to combine a thank you note with a simple permission form as well.
Lastly, don’t ever try to polish the language in your stories. Outside of basic spelling and punctuation corrections, let your subject’s voice remain authentic, true, and distinct.
Create a story inventory. Make story gathering an active, ongoing process, and encourage other members of your organization to keep an eye out for story opportunities. Keeping a centralized inventory of stories will make each grant proposal process easier – and will allow you to use specific examples of your program’s work to match the goals and missions of foundations.
But why stop there? Use your stories to recruit individual donors and new staff, and to spread the word about the good work of your program.