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Soup for the Soul: How Good Grant Proposals Are Like Good Books

October 8, 2020

Here in New Mexico the weather is getting crisp, the earthy aroma of green chile still hangs in the air, and the trees look like they’ve been touched by Midas. That’s right, people: it’s soup weather. And as I settle down to make my favorite curried butternut squash soup recipe, I am reminded of those Chicken Soup for the Soul books that were popular in the ’90s. According to ChickenSoup.com, over 250 Chicken Soup books have been published to date, all featuring true, inspirational stories about ordinary people.

It’s no wonder why the Chicken Soup books have been so successful. People find comfort in well-told stories—in watching others battle and overcome the struggles that make us human.  

Why shouldn’t grant proposals give us that same warm, cozy feeling? Sure, we want our reviewers to know the facts, understand the challenges at hand, and see the data that proves it all. But we also want them to feel—that their funding will make a difference, that there’s hope for a better world, and that the work described in the proposal can help get us there. After working through proposal after proposal, most grant reviewers are probably hungry for an engrossing story. Like good books, engaging proposals will have a compelling opening, a consistent narrative, and plenty of success stories. (We’ve written a couple blogs on this topic already. Check out Writing Something Worth Reading and How Can Hollywood Help You Write a Winning Proposal.)

If effective grant proposals are like good books, let’s all take a moment to grab our proverbial cups of soup and cozy up to some of the greatest authors of all time. As you read, keep in mind that, like good authors, good grant writers are also adept at shifting their writing voice to appeal to different audiences. (Is the funder innovative or traditional? Heartfelt or scientific?) Not all styles will work for all reviewers, and many proposals will include a mixture. When you sit down to write your next grant proposal, consider which writer’s voice(s) would be most effective. Or, in clickbait terms: Which legendary author are you?

The Anaya—A born storyteller, you paint a vivid picture of the communities and people at the heart of your mission. Your proposal is rich with stories, quotations, client testimonials, and anecdotes, shining with pride for local culture. A champion of the Bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel), you identify the root causes of systemic issues and present a clear, narrative progression from well-articulated challenge to fitting solution.

The Atwood—Unafraid of a little dystopia, you describe the horrors that will ensue if funding is not received and current conditions persist. Atwoodians live by the philosophy, “If you’re going to speak truth to power, make sure it’s the truth” (actual Atwood quote from a recent Guardian article). You are willing to dive boldly into the taboo to articulate complex issues and discuss uncomfortable topics.

The Bronte­­—A fan of the happy ending, you illuminate the impact of your program and how it will make the world a better place. You address your dear reader directly and take them into your confidence, giving them an insider’s view and showing the difference that their investment could make. Believing in a brighter future, you use words like “inspire,” “innovate,” and “cutting-edge.”

The Capote­—You carefully evaluate those who are most affected by your work and always do your research. Knowing that clues can make or break a case, you thoughtfully present all of the evidence and describe a logical solution. You excel in the realm of details, diagrams, data, and best practices.

The Hemingway­—You are on a strict word limit. You are not unfolding a beautiful flower for the reviewer—you are shooting a lion, and the shot is good. The Papa of pithiness, you state the problem and describe your solution in crisp, unadulterated prose. (If you really want to write like Hemingway, check out www.hemingwayapp.com).

The Morrison­­­—You boldly tackle issues of race, injustice, and inequality with grace, artistry, and finesse. Dabbling in deeper meanings, you describe why your project or organization is fundamentally important and how it contributes to the field. You understand, appreciate, and communicate your own value and candidly describe any obstacles standing in your way.

The Twain­—Sometimes it’s ok to be playful. Your proposal may incorporate pictures, videos, or anecdotes. Twainians are highly perceptive, finding systemic ironies and calling out problems that others may not see. They are also clever, leveraging ingenious solutions and partnerships to provide added value.

Grant writers should be open to invoking all the creativity of the masters when it makes for a more compelling argument. In practice, though, sometimes grant writing is more about composing a straightforward proposal within the limits of time, word space, and available resources—and that’s ok, too. The beauty of grant writing is that, while it can feed our literary soul, funding proposals serve a much more tangible purpose: of actually feeding people, providing housing, creating access to health care, supporting art and education, and transforming people’s lives.

In the midst of a global pandemic and our current political climate, the world needs more stellar grant writers putting their proposals out there and securing funding for the groundbreaking solutions that they undoubtedly have. The world also needs more soup. If the onset of colder weather has left you hankering for a cuppa (cup of soup, that is), check out that curried squash soup recipe here. You won’t regret it.

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