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It’s All About the Story: Impactful Need Statements

Funders want to know that their money is making an impact. The story helps them understand how they will make a difference.


When I was a young girl, my friends and I devoured the “Chronicles of Narnia” books by C.S. Lewis. One of my friends had a huge closet where we would hide under hanging clothes, and imagine it was the portal to Narnia. In our minds, we were in Narnia. It was a wonderful part of my childhood and a memory I still cherish. That creativity and imagination inherent in childhood helps us learn, and it should be a right of every child. But what if a child doesn’t have books, a quality education, literacy skills, a home, or a supportive family? That is the crux of the need which can be put in a grant proposal, depending upon the project you are writing about.

How will you find and use such stories to support your need statement? Talk or simply listen to your organization clients, project staff and volunteers. Collect those stories! Here is a “Nonprofit Storytelling Field Guide and Journal” for your use. You may also consider buying a set of these books to give to your Board or others to encourage them to collect those stories from clients. When writing multiple grant proposals, grant writers need new stories so they can keep the passion in their words and make each proposal resound with the reader. Who wants to write or read the same thing over and over anyway?

“Begin with the ending in mind.” Sharon Skinner advises in a GPA webinar that receiving funding is the ending of a grant proposal, which should always be a focus. She also recommends that your proposal opening reflect this ending. Her webinar is entitled “The Narrative Thread in your Grant Proposal or Telling a Compelling Story without Writing Fiction.” She details the required elements of a strong story in a grant proposal: knowing your audience (reviewer), describing the protagonist (the client hero served by your agency), conflict (hero is struggling), point of crisis (what happens to hero without this funding), and the resolution (what organization is doing to help hero). When you reach the end of that grant proposal, mirror that strong beginning need statement by addressing the funder. For example, “With your help, we will address literacy needs.” Think back to your English classes in high school, and develop a strong story.

In your need statement, remember to give your protagonist a name. It should be a fictional name, but can be a true story. Giving a name makes it more personal, and impacts the reader emotionally. Funders want to know that their money is making an impact; the story helps them understand how they will make a difference. In addition, don’t think that stories can only be used in foundation or corporate grants; opening a federal or state grant proposal with a story in your need statement can catch the reader’s attention and hold it throughout. Make the reader feel and think they MUST fund this project or the world will fall apart.

As a federal grant reviewer, I still remember a grant proposal based on helping the community after Hurricane Katrina hit. From the beginning, that proposal hooked me with the incredible need and story of the horrible impact on the people of New Orleans. Every part of the proposal, including the budget, related back to that need statement, and was a direct resolution to the crisis. The entire review committee scored the proposal near perfect, and there was no way we were not recommending it for funding. It was funded, and to this day, I strive for that perfect coherent thread from need statement to ending in my proposals.

Need some more writing resources and tools? Check out these great GPA articles about need statements, and educate yourself. These articles include some great planning, mapping, and tips you can use today. Review some effective need statements online, or ask a grant colleague to provide you a sample. Some funders provide winning grant proposals on their websites. Descriptive writing and impacting the reader take ongoing practice. Don’t ever stop learning and improving the art of writing.

Lastly, take advice from C.S. Lewis himself. “Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is ‘terrible’ describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was ‘delightful'; make us say ‘delightful’ when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers ‘Please, will you do my job for me.'”

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