Episode aired June 17, 2020: Storytelling in Grant Writing

Diane H. Leonard and her team have secured over $65 million in grant funding. She knows how critical storytelling is to a proposal receiving funding. In this episode, Diane discusses 

  • how critical building a relationship with a grant maker is (hint: You want them advocating for you)
  • the importance of having a storytelling bank
  • how a grant proposal budget can also tell a story and
  • why you never want to force a grant maker to do algebra. 

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.


Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today it’s a real pleasure to have one of the leading grant experts in the nonprofit sector, Diane Leonard. Diane, how you doing today?

Diane: Hey thanks so much for having me. Glad to be here with you. What a great podcast!    

Ephraim: An absolute pleasure. Thanks for joining us. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers. Diane H. Leonard is a grant professional certified and approved trainer of the Grant Professionals Association. Diane is also a licensed scrum trainer, licensed scrum master and licensed scrum product owner through Scrum Inc. Since 2006 Diane and her team have secured more than $65.1 million in competitive grant awards for the clients of DH Leonard Consulting and Grant Writing Services. She’s an active member of the Grant Professionals Association. You can learn more about her work at

When not working with her team on grant applications for clients, Diane can be found on the Thousand Islands out for a run or drinking a strong cup of coffee.

Storytelling In A Grant Application

In today’s episode we’re gonna discuss storytelling in grant writing. So let’s dive right in. Diane: Many people think that a grant application is just a bunch of matter-of-fact answers to questions and filling out a budget form. How does storytelling fit into that format?

Diane: Right, that is such an important question and while indeed the forms themselves that we fill out are really important and without doing that properly you won’t stand a chance to get the grant, we’re not at the stage yet where we have artificial-intelligence reading applications and making decisions. It’s people reading the grant applications and making decisions. So just like when you’re talking to major donors or individual annual appeal type donors, there’s people making a choice about do they advocate for you, do they open their checkbook, are they gonna actually write the check, right? And so storytelling, not necessarily always about “client success story” but the idea that you are writing a piece of work that draws your route readers right in, that it helps them understand about the work you do, the people you serve, your target audience.

That’s really the idea of storytelling so that they want to advocate for you because honestly, all grant makers get a stack of proposals that’s way bigger than they’re gonna be able to fund. So how are you going to stand out? Not with boring answers. They’ve got to understand your work and your passion. And so that’s where the storytelling comes in.

Clarity, Benefits, Effectiveness

Ephraim: Fantastic. So you’ve written about the eight qualities that help make up an excellent grant proposal. How can storytelling assist with three of those qualities: clarity, benefits and effectiveness?

Diane:  Sure. So you know storytelling and the way it reacts, the way it resonates with reviewers, each reviewer has a different perspective and a different background. And so they’re knowledgeable and prepared to review applications about whatever it is that you’re presenting. But they have different points of reference professionally and personally. And so when you think about the way that storytelling could help in terms of the clarity, the way in which you present your story, you’re talking about reference points and need data that would resonate with anyone. You’re avoiding making assumptions. You’re connecting the dots. Like little kid connect the dot drawings. You’re connecting the dots for reviewers so that they’re walking the journey with you. And storytelling can help them do that, versus just being flooded with statistics or with raw data.

In terms of benefits, what’s the impact of your work? What does success look like? If they give you $25 thousand or 2.5 million, it doesn’t matter. The reviewers want to know what does success look like and that shouldn’t be a boring answer.

So it can really help with that and that also then ties to effectiveness: How is it that your organization manages, measures your success, right? You’ve got those great smart objectives that you’ve written about on the front end and so if you can give them a peek of what’s gonna happen on the after you fund me side, what’s it gonna look like, that can really help a reviewer say, wow, I can’t wait to see how they do this and I feel really confident that they’re going to be able to do what they say they’re going to. So I think that’s how the storytelling can help on those three specific areas.

3 Things To Prepare Before Writing A Grant Proposal

Ephraim: That’s an excellent, excellent answer and a lot of nuggets of wisdom for people to learn from about how funders look at grant applications and how to end up having your application get funded. So today’s actionable item for everybody who’s with us: From a storytelling perspective, please tell us three things grant writers should prepare and have ready in advance before sitting down to even begin writing the grant proposal?

Diane: So I like to say that you want to have all your homework done first. And that often sounds like that means researching grant makers. But if you think about what’s gonna happen, what you’re gonna do to be prepared before you actually sit down and write in the grant lifecycle, there’s an awful lot of prep work that you can do. And so what you should have to sit down and be ready to write might actually look a little different from grant maker to grant maker, depending on their guidelines.

But if we’re gonna generalize, happy to generalize for what folks should have, you should think about do you have your logic model ready? I know that doesn’t sound like a storytelling item. It sounds like a formal program planning document. But if you have your logic model agreed upon by your colleagues, you’ve already reached this point of consensus where you’re gonna have an easier time writing because you can see the structure with which you’re presenting your program. You can say that we already know what our inputs are, we know what our activities are, we know we’re gonna count, we know what our outcomes are. That gives you some really nice framing. So that when you sit down to write, you’re comparing it against the grant makers formal questions and thinking about how can I tell this agreed-upon story, this is who we are it doesn’t change, how can I tell that story within the questions? Because honestly I think where some folks might go wrong is that they don’t customize enough. They don’t think about how they tell who they are and what they do in a way that best answers the question and in the context of that specific grantmaker. That’s the first thing. Logic model, even though it feels very formal and document style.

The second thing is that you should have from your organization’s- I’m gonna call it a storytelling bank- you can call it whatever you want… your social media colleagues and your annual appeal colleagues and fill in the blank, all of your colleagues are probably hearing amazing things. And so hopefully you’re already storing them all in one easy to access place, so that when you’re ready to write, you have your logic models item one and you open up the story Bank. It’s a Google sheet, it’s a Google Doc, it’s something in Salesforce but a place where you can say, what do I have as options for the actual stories I might tell or reference. So that’s item two.   

And then our third item… I would make sure that you have the data. I’d make sure that you have the actual data about what has happened if it’s an existing project or program. So have all that ready so you can think about how to use that in your story. But I know you might be asking for something new, right? So what’s the fill in the blank instead for number three?

I would look at other programs that you’ve offered, other items of success that might help you decide what metrics you’re gonna put forward and what might help sell your capacity to your grant maker. So those are my three things: Logic model, storytelling items and then data about your success.

The Budget Tells A Story

Ephraim: Excellent. You’ve secured over 65 million dollars in grant awards for your clients. That means you filled out quite a lot of budget forms. How can a grant proposal budget also tell a story?

Diane: I don’t even like to think about how many budget forms that means. So one thing that you know… I don’t always talk about in my bio but folks come to grants in a wide range of paths, careers, degrees. I actually was a grant maker first and so I spent the beginning of my career reading proposals, working with our Board, trying to decide what was the best way for that Board to invest the funds. And it was there that I developed the habit of reading budget forms first. And I quickly learned when I would sit in task force meetings and other collaborative sessions with other funders, that I wasn’t alone. And I was like, oh I thought it was just because I’m like a numbers person that I would choose to read the budget. But other people around me were doing it too.

And the reason that we were doing that and we still do- and why I love, thank you for this question- I love talking about budgets for telling stories is that… think about whether you wrote three pages or 50 pages. 42 pages, it doesn’t matter. The budget document itself will always be smaller and will tell a story. Are we talking about capital? Are we talking about primarily supplies? Are we talking about hiring a new position, so it’s gonna be all salary? Are you asking the grant maker to fund all of the work? Do you already have committed funders and you’re just asking them for the final piece so that you can launch the program with fidelity the way you designed it? These are things that a grant maker can figure out just from looking at the budget form. Not even at the justification yet.

Now I will say, let’s talk about budget narrative for just a minute, because maybe that’s where it feels more storytelling than the numbers. But when we look at our budget justifications and our budget forms, they should tell a consistent story to the rest of the narrative, right? They should be building on it, it should make sense. If you talked about transportation as a barrier in your narrative, you should be addressing it in the budget form and in our budget justification. So you’re telling the same story, you’re building on it as folks are reading the whole application.

But probably my biggest pet peeve about budget narratives, it’s not that the numbers don’t add up but it’s that well-intentioned, totally well-intentioned organizations, will write out narrative and they think it’s the story and it is, but it’s like a return to algebra class. I don’t know how you felt about algebra class. I loved it. And I love when my daughter’s got to ‘let’s talk about solving for variables.’ But when you solve for variables, not everyone’s comfortable. Usually folks are gonna want to get out their calculator. So for example, if you’re telling a great story in your budget narrative about how transportation was a barrier and you’ve set the stage in your narrative whether they read the budget first or second it doesn’t matter, but you tell them you have $1,762 dollars in transportation and we’re gonna reimburse you at fifty three cents a mile, but you don’t tell them how many miles that actually funds, you just left an unknown variable, right? Solve for X in that budget narrative and it made it really hard for the reviewer to understand that story, because they might have actually gotten distracted and pulled out their calculator to figure it out. So it’s little details in the budget that really point to consistency or inconsistency and build on the story. Can you see I get really passionate about budgets? Can you hear it?

Ephraim: I love it because I happen to love numbers and data but I do not like algebra at all. So I love the passion about the numbers but as soon as you went to algebra, I got what you’re saying. I don’t like to solve… I’m not a solve for X kind of guy. Let’s put it that way.

Diane: And neither are reviewers. They’re gonna put the proposal down like you just went from absolute yes to somewhere down the line hopefully you get partial funding.

Biggest Nonprofit Grant Writing Mistake

Ephraim: Yup. What’s the biggest mistake nonprofits make when it comes to grant writing and proposals and how can they fix it?

Diane: Could I have… what do we have today? Let’s triple the time, let’s quadruple it!

So this is where it comes down to the fact that grant seeking organizations are so well-intentioned and they need grant money to do great things. And so when they think about the work and how they’ve got a whole calendar usually, like a grant calendar full of things they’re going to apply for, things that are gonna help with their strategic plan and their programs. How are they gonna make this all happen?

I think the biggest mistake that I see, it’s got nothing actually to do with the writing. I mean I think storytelling can help polish and strengthen applications. I think there can be more focus and polishing on the budget side. But again generalizing, when I get a call from an organization saying, we don’t understand why we’re not getting the funding we thought we would. We have great programs with great outcomes. Why are we getting rejection letters? Can you help us revise our work? I say, hold on. Before we even look at a document, let’s talk about your relationship building practices. What do you do between when you research a grant maker and you find them in the database online, in an email? What do you do between then and when you sit down to write? And if the answer is read about them a little bit online, that’s where you have a problem. Don’t go to your writing for editing yet. Let’s focus on that relationship development, because the reality is it’s people granting to people.

So to go back to the point about storytelling and why we think about it, it’s about how we connect with our grant makers but our grant makers are all different, not even just like the individual reviewers, but why does the grant maker exist? What is their mission? What are they trying to accomplish? They have the money and they have an idea for what they want to accomplish. You have the awesome services and programs and this idea you have to present it in a way that will connect the dots so that they want to say yes. Well if you don’t try to connect with them, if you don’t try to clarify their black-and-white guidelines, I mean it’s not like we’re interpreting their guidelines and there’s as much room for interpretation as say a text with your friends, right? But there still is a lot of room for interpretation in funder guidelines. And what does success really look like for them and why do they promote some grantees but not others on their website or social media? Talking with grant makers is an incredible competitive advantage and I think too many nonprofits don’t spend the time trying to find that connection, either by calling directly or asking board members. And that’s a disadvantage to them. Their proposal could fall flat compared to someone else now who called. They might offer a very similar thing.

Now usually, I’ve got to say, I know what the comment back is: Well, not all grant makers let us talk to them! True. They don’t have capacity or preference, they never will and we respect that. So we can set those aside and instead maybe try to find someone who was a grantee, someone who can give us some insight or information beyond the guidelines. But unless they told you no way, don’t call us, don’t email us… unless they said that you should try and find a point of contact because it’s going to help you not just write well, it’s gonna help you write to them, because you want their money, not someone else’s. So anyway we found another soap box I think. But I think that’s the biggest area that really across the board, nonprofits can spend some more time and effort on.

Let’s Learn About Diane

Ephraim: Perfect. It’s all about relationship building. Let’s move on to the lightning round and learn more about Diane. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Diane: I got an awesome fellowship when I was an undergrad at Cornell University. A letter showed up in the mail, you congratulations are a Cornell tradition fellow! I don’t know what that is. But what it meant was, because of my service record in high school, like National Honor Society and other volunteer commitments, they pulled that out of my application in my essay and I got selected to be a fellow. So I had to maintain it, continuing to volunteer each\ of my undergrad years. But it meant you could have an internship of your design in a nonprofit anywhere in the world. I thought I’d really like to figure out this philanthropy thing and see what happens in grant making organizations.

Thank heavens Peg Talbert at the Michigan Women’s Foundation was like, this is amazing. I literally, I had to type them- giving away my age here- type a letter, send it and she’s like, yes come on out unpaid intern! And it all starts there. Amazing mentor, amazing opportunity because I didn’t realize how strong the Michigan philanthropic community was. That’s where the Ford Foundation started, it’s where you’ve got Kresge, it’s where you’ve got Dow. I mean huge huge philanthropic dollars, corporate, private. So it was such an amazing spot to learn and it was just a philanthropic sandbox and loved it. So that’s where I got my start.

Ephraim: Fantastic. So given now all your years in the nonprofit world, if there’s one thing you could shake up in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Diane: Oh I’m gonna have to point to some of the Vu Le’s work. While expertise and experience is in philanthropy on both sides, I think that the relationship, the power dynamics, the structure that’s there isn’t ideal. It takes an awful lot of work for nonprofits to go after funding. I’m not sure that I have the answer. I’m not sure that anyone does right now, but I do think that it takes an awful lot of time and effort and that there are organizations that just aren’t seeing a strong enough ROI but keep trying because they need to. I’d rather see them spend their time on the impact they’re trying to create.

So to me I think that would be one thing that would be amazing to have. And there’s some movement, there’s some great conversations happening but it’s gonna be really slow change I think, in terms of seeing the power differential start to shift and towards the point of the Unicorns Unite book, that Vu was one of the co-authors for. They talk about epic partnerships between nonprofits and foundations. And epic isn’t just epic. It’s an acronym. Let’s talk about all the amazing things that can happen. I don’t think we’re there yet. There’s some that are really making headway but I think that that’s one thing that could really shake up not just how dollars are distributed in the efforts but the way in which we reach impact as a community, a large big nonprofit community.

Ephraim: That’s a good one. Since we’re doing storytelling, what’s a favorite book or story from your childhood?

Diane: Shel Silverstein. Everything Shel Silverstein. We would walk to the library, my younger sister and I with my mom and we were allowed to take out maybe it was three or four books each every week. And so I would rotate which Shel Silverstein book I would have, within my pick of three or four. I mean I’m a Type A, so I was pretty like methodical about it. But just loved it. And it wasn’t because I was trying to sell my sister for the, you know, sister for sale poem that he has. I loved her. Had a great time at the library. But his work was just… it was fantastic. And it was different and inspiring and actually, in second grade I used to write that I was going to be an author. And I think that was in part just because of my love for books and all that.

Ephraim: Fantastic. Well you are an author, considering what you do for a living with all the writing. You’re on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and I’m sure a bunch of others. What’s your favorite social media platform and why?

Diane: Twitter. Which I never thought I would say ever, because I’m like that’s like character counting writing for grants. It’s weird. But I co-founded Grantchat with Jo Miller… well, I’ve lost track, seven years ago maybe? It’s been a long time. And through Twitter it was amazing to see how you could create connections and relationships and share meaningful information and how you could have such great dialogue with someone over Twitter, that the next time you were at a conference and they happen to be there, it was like well I’ve known you forever, right? Are we gonna hug it out? What’s happening? This is great. It’s amazing to me that in such short soundbites, you can have such meaningful dialogue and build relationships. I really love it. I think actually that’s where we first met.

Ephraim: That’s correct.

Diane: So it’s got that going for it too.

Ephraim: What’s the best part about living in the Thousand Islands?

Diane: There are 1,856 amazing reasons to get outside. Get outside in the snow and snowshoe, in the summer and to kayak or paddleboard and it just… water is my calm place. And so to just be out and like at the end of the day, recharge and get ready for the next round of federal grants or whatever it is we’re gonna do, for me it’s perfect.

Ephraim: I love that. Let’s turn the table. Your turn to ask me a question, surprise question. I have no idea what’s coming. Go ahead.

Diane: So you have extensive world travel experience under your belt. If you could only go to one place on a trip right now, where would you go?

Ephraim: Boston. That’s it. That is my happy place. Now Vegas is a very close 1A and so is Toronto up in Ontario, is also a 1A. I lived a number of years in Toronto. I love it. Vegas is… well, Vegas is Vegas. So either you love it or hate it. There’s really no in-between and I happen to love Vegas. But Boston. I’m a New England boy. My father is 100% New England going back a couple of generations. I love Boston especially spring and summer with the colors and the breeze off the ocean and just… and I love the people there. I know that some of them rub people the wrong way but it’s like you know New Yorkers. You live in New York or you grew up there, you kind of get used to them. So Bostonians are a special breed but I love them.

So for me if there’s one place I could move to, it would totally be Boston. Certainly in the nonprofit world there’s so much going on there but just my love of the city and I guess, I might as well throw in, that I’m a big huge sports fan, so being in Boston with all my teams playing… yeah, that would be ideal. Let’s put it that way. So Boston would be my first choice. What would be yours if it wasn’t Thousand Islands?

Diane: See I asked the question and I wasn’t ready to answer the question. Turning the tables. I think I would say the British Virgin Islands.

Ephraim: That’s an interesting one.

Diane: We’ve been there as a family and have a friend that can sail and just the experience of one cellphone not really working very well lets you take extensive steps. That’s wonderful in itself but we’re a water-based family and my children think they’re gonna take the consulting firm and turn it into some sort of sea turtle nonprofit or we’re just gonna get all the sea turtle grants. So to be there and to see the joy and to swim with them is just in… right in the wild, you’re like oh my gosh! It’s unreal and I think that would be an amazing place to be right now, at any time.

Ephraim: I love that. Thank you very very much for appearing on the podcast today. You can learn more about Diane’s company at and of course you can connect with her on LinkedIn. Diane, thanks very much. Have a really really good day.

Diane: Thank you.

Ephraim: Have a good one.