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  • Writer's pictureVashalice Kaaba

Ethical Storytelling in Grant Writing

Why do we tell stories? Stories compel us to think deeper and see our world through different lenses. In grant writing, the ability to tell the story of an organization or a cause worthy of championing is one that every grant writer should possess. Effective storytelling in grant writing takes the reader on a journey through an organization’s mission, its unique problem, and how they intend to solve it with the assistance of a funder. And while storytelling is the foundation of an organization's presentation to the world, as grant writers, we always want to ensure we present an organization in a light that reflects its ethos and core values. Enter Ethical Storytelling. Ethical storytelling refers to the active practice of ensuring that stories are inclusive of both the viewpoints of the constituents and donors. Ethical storytelling is relationship-centered, pays attention to intercultural dynamics, and is aware of power dynamics. Storytelling, specifically the storyteller, holds power, and if stories are not told responsibly, we fall into the danger of creating what Chimamanda Adichie calls “a single story,” a story that stereotypes and creates a somewhat false narrative around a group or person[1]. Creating an ethical and grounded story for an organization can be challenging if the grant writer is unaware of ethical storytelling markers. An ethical story from a grant writer’s perspective is comprised of four elements that support an organization's mission and values and represents its constituents in a way that reflects their dignity and integrity:

1. Experience: Choosing the right story to tell

A grant writer should always be selective about which story to share with a donor or the public on behalf of the organization they are representing. The organization and grant writer should partner closely to craft the best story and consider these questions while storytelling:

  • What experience do you want to share?

  • Why do you want to share it?

  • How did the experience impact you and your constituents?

  • What impact can the story have on other people who are not familiar with the organization's cause or your target population?

The “right” story can vary depending on the context or need. For example, if an organization sought to raise funds for a program that assists HIV-positive women of color, an ethical approach to the women’s story would be to highlight their resilience and humanity in their story and not focus solely on their HIV status, making it their defining character trait. HIV-positive status inherently has negative connotations associated with people who contract the disease, particularly in communities of color. Using the knowledge of HIV-positive status perception, a grant writer would advise the organization to frame the women’s experiences differently, centering HIV awareness and the positive things the women accomplish in spite of their HIV status if it needs to be mentioned at all. Stories should seek to be tools of empowerment rather than bring shame to the characters in the story. We always want to consider how the people or group - the women in this case - would be impacted by a poorly told story, lacking empathy and ethical underpinnings.

2. Journey: Mapping out the steps of the story

The steps to map out a story are incredibly important, although often understated. When the story takes place, how it develops, and what experiences develop as it progresses dictate its direction. Grant writers should steer the direction of an organization’s story toward one of clarity, intentionality, and positive impact. Ethical story mapping is a useful tool that a grant writer can use to navigate and join the various narratives of the organization and its constituents. Mapping a story is similar to creating a layout for a grant proposal. A grant writer should do initial research on the organization, its mission, the story they wish to tell, and what population will directly impact it. After conducting initial research, a grant writer should sort the collected information, organize it, and tell a story. Different types of information, such as quantitative data, experiences of an organization’s constituents, and past accomplishments, all count as narratives during story mapping. Each narrative is unique and can add great value to the quality of a story.

3. Relationships: Identifying the contributors to the story

Who is telling the story? Ethical storytelling heavily centers on the question of “who” is telling a story in concert with “why” a particular story is being told. People, groups, or organizations who are involved in the experience being written about should be in relationship with one another in some way. For example, from an ethical storytelling perspective, if a local organization has no meaningful connection or investment with the community they seek to assist, their ability to tell that community’s story will be limited at best and unethical at worst. Grant writers should always check and ensure that an organization has a clear and true connection with the population the organization is seeking to help. As grant writers, we should never want to cause harm to any community due to misrepresentation. How an organization develops its relationship with its target population, and any changes that the relationship has undergone should be disclosed from the start. Additionally, whose voice is the loudest among the contributors is something to note. Depending on the context of the story, contributors’ voices may or may not be equal. A grant writer must be able to help guide an organization into understanding which voice should be highlighted.

4. Audience: Sharing the story

Who are organizations sharing their stories with? What about their stories would the audience find most interesting? The grant writer should have the audience in mind when writing proposals that seek to inform, describe, or persuade the audience to champion any organization’s cause or call to action. Grantors such as state and federal agencies like to see if an organization can complete or perform a service for their constituents. In comparison, foundation grantors usually want to know the “heart” of an organization (i.e., the “why” behind their mission). No audience is exactly alike. Each grant writer must craft a story that speaks to an organization’s audience's unique interest. Collecting additional information from the organization is required to leverage an audience's interest and keep them attracted to an organization's story. Leaving an audience wanting to hear more about an organization through storytelling is key to encouraging further support and establishing a lasting impression.

The four elements of ethical storytelling are powerful tools to use when grant writing for an organization. Along with recognizing and leveraging ethical storytelling markers, grant writers should integrate an Intercultural Competence and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (ICDEIA) lens whenever possible and encourage organizations to adopt this lens if it fits within their missions, goals, and values. ICDEIA, coined by the Peace Corps[2], are interrelated and inseparable elements vital to the successful work and service done by organizations that seek to reflect on their own organization's social identities, values, and intercultural competencies to reflect those of their community. An ethical approach to service and storytelling is baked into ICDEIA’s work. Grant professionals seeking to advise and write from an ICDEIA lens should note inherent power dynamics in storytelling unique to the nonprofit sector and beyond. When integrating an ICDEIA lens into writing, a grant writer and its partner organization should be aware of the savior complex, a power dynamic that fosters stories that are often unethical and one-sided. The Savior Complex[3] puts the focus on the storyteller while viewing everyone else with a deficit lens. It paints the storyteller as a hero whose presence and actions were a critical intervention that helped someone escape their dire circumstances. It implies that the recipients of the “help” would not have been able to overcome the difficulties without the savior. The savior complex is still prevalent in nonprofit organizational storytelling and is profoundly unethical. Cultural humility is a great tool to combat the savior complex and aligns the organization with its target population and community. Grant writers should view the “golden rule question[4]” and the “platinum rule question[5]” as cultural humility helpmeets for creating ethical stories on behalf of an organization and its constituents.

Ethical storytelling is powerful. It allows a grant writer to tell the story of an organization and its constituents that honors and uplifts an organization’s target population and resonates with donors. When executed correctly, ethical stories can center marginalized and disenfranchised groups in a positive way, providing catharsis as their voices are heard. Finally, grant writers can be agents of change, creating a culture where organizations’ target populations are portrayed with dignity and resilience. Ethical storytelling encourages others to open up about their experiences and bring awareness to important causes in the world.

[1] TED. (2009, October 7). The danger of a single story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie [Video]. YouTube. [2] [3] Source: Peace Corps’ Approach to Ethical Storytelling Participant Workbook [4] The Golden Rule says to treat others the way you want to be treated. As grant writers craft stories for organizations and their constituents, a golden rule question we might ask about the story is: Would I be comfortable telling this story with the person or group in the room? [5] The Platinum Rule says to treat others the way they would want to be treated. A platinum rule question asks: Would the person or group be happy listening to the story while sitting in the company of their community and loved ones?

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