Paralympians, musicians, writers, artists, performers. They have the best stories, and I had the great privilege to shepherd a few dozen of them into the wider world recently. I pitched a Story Telling booth the conference committee of the Australasian Society for Intellectual Disability. Their tagline is ‘research to practice’ and they involve people with lived experience of intellectual disability in research as much as is possible.
I focused on Self Advocates, but the amazing Sophia Tipping gathered vox pops, and talked to keynote speakers. It will all be going into the ASID podcast (subscribe anywhere you find good podcasts).
It was a lot of work, but very good fun, the ASID board were super supportive and I would do it again at the drop of a hat.
Someone gave me cause to think about how I would teach what I know about grant writing today. I’ve sat on the other side of the desk plenty of times and been given lots to think about by some great teachers. I also think I have an approach that can help your application stand out, make a case and leave a mark.
The people in the class have to be prompted to think through the problems from their own point of view. I’m not sure how you would do that just yet. It could be through some grant giver/grant seeker role play, a dragon’s den pitch session, all verbal probably. If you can say it, you can write it. And it would help get away from ten dollar words that are dull and boring to read.
Obviously, you need to do some work on the donor knowledge gap and opening your eyes to the assumptions we all make when we tell our own stories.
After that it’s just decoding inputs, outputs, outcomes and budgets.
I just handed it over. Across the table, it was an impulse donation, for sure. But he had me, without trying, without asking.
Here are my reasons why:
-It was a good story, well told,
-I had the image of tragic teen suicides in my mind, the school friend of mine who did the same. In front of a train, because of money issues.
-I identified with the local guy who steps up and does something about it. Who says ‘no more, not in my community’, I want that to happen. I want to be that man.
-He told the story with heart, He cared about it. You could see that, he told me about his connection with the ‘how’ they have chosen to deal with this rash of suicides. How he loves sport, how it had taught him things, how he coaches and how he believes it can help.
-He was also humble, with a modest goal, that he was nearly at, I wanted him to succeed, I believed in his goal. So I helped.
You can too: Tim Moon did a ten day marathon meditation cut off from the world, he did it for the Beehive Foundation, building resilience in young people.
“Good proposals will tell (a grantmaker) what you see when you go to work everyday,” said Hicks. The sign of a good grant proposal is it reads like a mystery novel, he said. “You want to turn the page to find out what happens.”
And that’s the challenge. Exposing the extraordinary in the everyday. I’m trying to do it now, show an average case of what we see and do at work everyday but make it gripping, but mostly it’s not. It’s everyday. But that reminds me of another quote, Bill Gates this time I think “We all overestimate what we can do in a year, but underestimate what we can do in a decade”. Problem is an average fundraiser stays with an organisation for 18 months (the internet said so, but I forget where) so we are lousy at having that decade long view that can see the transformations that happen over decades.
We need to institutionalise the practice of recording stories about our long term achievements. I did this on a retreat a while ago. We all sat around the campfire at the end of a long day of cold BBQ and I asked everyone in turn what brought them to this field, and what their best experience at this organisation had been. I’m still using the stories that came out. They tend to come out relatively unformed, but the things that sustain people are what we should be talking about. And hopefully what will win us the big grants!
Here’s where some of the everyday incredible happens:
The third of three art rooms at UPMO towers. Everyday incredible happens over years right here.
I saw an interesting TED talk yesterday, Tyler Cowen of the blog Marginal Revolution among many other perhaps more important things. Cautioning against trusting simple stories, that complexity is our nature especially in this world. This made me think about some of the stories the non profits I’ve worked for have to tell. They are complex stories, and in making them simple you definitely have to leave things out, important things. But when it comes down to the problems we as a sector have they are nearly always problems with human faces and solutions of all kinds. Problems and solutions.
If you focus on the human face of the problem that whatever complex set of social, natural political has created you focus on the effect, neatly sidestepping the need for the complex circumstances that created that human problem.
The solution on the other hand can be complex, and will probably be hard. But the outcome, the change you want to see in the world, again will probably be simple. More of this, better that, less occurrence of something. If you can establish legitimacy and expertise in the solution, you can leave that ‘black box’ or point to a theme, or a risk area, or a pilot that worked well, and shortcut to the human face of the problem and the human face of the solution. Our stories need to be simple to be memorable, but stick to the problem and outcomes and we can avoid the need to confuse our audience with the complexities that take us most of our work.
I saw some new art this week, always has a restorative effect on me. Ironic that in this city of culture I went an hours train ride away to Ballarat. Simple, powerful and endlessly engaging. I would like to think that the input feed was a camera of the guests at the museum, but I fear it is a loop.
I was there to see Melissa Peacock at the neighbour exhibition, great art all round.
So you do something you are passionate about. Congrats. Getting there probably taught you that very little gets done on your own. So how do you get others onto your train? Telling your own story so others see your passion is a vital skill for every artist, maker and person who needs to work with others. Dictators, Cult leaders, Non profit CEO’s etc.
This was the draw for the artists, makers and creative professionals who work in the Edinburgh Palette building to come to a workshop I organised in December last year (2014). I work charities, one at a time, in jobs. I get in depth with all the aspects of an organisation; projects, services, people and above all the changes that group of people want to see in the world. But that’s one story per job, so helping more people with their story was my motivation.
In the end three professionals, David, Vittoria and Jan spent a day with me pinning down the specifics of their stories that they could use in their work. In the morning we went through the basics of story, why it’s so powerful, why, when told right, it sticks with people through their whole lives and some of the secrets to powerful stories.
Then all three workshop participants talked about themselves at length, what torture. Together we came up with the short version of what they do and an arresting reason why. Three images stick with me:
David playing in his fathers glass shop, hiding in the inverted V between the stacks of blue green glass, looking into the infinite reflections.
Vittoria and her collections of objects, 3 dozen brass candlesticks and hundreds of other multiples stacked in piles around her seaside home.
Jan talking about felt, has to be seen to be remembered.
I made them practice telling their story to me, repeatedly. I asked them to tell it like they meant it, so it sounded natural. It wasn’t easy and it will take practice, but they will be better able to convincingly portray their vision and where it came from. The next step is finding the right people to tell those convincing stories to. I wish I could help with that.
Just four people getting to the bottom of the puzzling mysteries of story!
I like that I write for a living. But as with all wordsmiths the words are the elegant swan like results you see, the bulk of the work is the messy stuff that happens under water.
A few months ago I went on a course on writing better grant applications, ‘Improving your proposals’ not a lot of it was new, but it ignited my enthusiasm again, like all good courses should. What it did do was remind me of the fiction writing class I took just after I finished my dissertation. ‘start in the middle of the action’ was the overlap phrase that joined the two things, fiction writing and grant writing.
A few months ago my wife announced she had applied to graduate school to study journalism. Being supportive, but knowing nothing about journalism I turned to Amazon.co.uk to see how I could help. Regretfully the book that turned up has helped me much more than her. ‘Telling true stories’ Edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, it’s a masterful series of tips, hints and explanations by some of the best narrative journalists working today. It has taught me a lot about grant writing.
The whole book lives in that overlap between writing fiction and writing grants, telling true stories. Both forms of writing have the goal of grasping the attention of the reader; giving them pleasure; amazement, and making them care about the fate of the heros, or villains, or underdogs of the piece.
Reading more of it this morning I stated thinking about the engine of the drama you write about that drives the story. For grant writing I feel it is the decision implicit in every application; will you, dear reader, allow this story to have the happy ending I am trying to depict? It’s a participatory story, the reader, the grant maker, defines the ending.
As for the beginning and the middle that’s up to me. Taking the reader on a journey up the ladder of abstraction. connecting the gleaming details of the good work we are doing with the big ideas, the lofty goals that started our charity, thats the connection I have to draw.
It’s my job to understand the background, get to know the players and align the facts and see where the good will happen, to know it well enough that I can show, not tell in a way that’s obvious, real, accurate and nuanced enough to meet the needs of the child and the doctor at the dinner table*. That’s where this book is so useful. Written by journalists that specialise in telling true stories, and at it’s heart that’s what grant writing is all about.
I have to find the small, human details that will show them, not tell them, that this is an important story that needs the happy ending only they can provide. It’s made its way on to my book shelf, well book-pile at the moment , I believe it will earn it’s place there very quickly.
* So imagine you are at a dinner party and you have to explain a medical condition, say Heart Disease to two people seated in front of you, on your right is a doctor, an expert in his field, and keenly aware of the details of the issue. on your left, playing with his dinner on the white china plate is a child, about 6 years old. Your challenge is to describe the condition, so the child understands it but the doctor doesn’t think you got it wrong.