Why Good Grant Writing Is Like Good Journalism

The Power of a Good Metaphor

When my oldest daughter (now ten) was younger, she could be very shy. You might not have thought so, because even then she was smart and articulate, gregarious, and a natural leader — but it’s true. Even saying “Hello” could be particularly difficult for her, even — and sometimes especially — with the people she loves most: her parents, grandparents, and close friends.

At first this was hard for me to understand. I thought she was just being impolite, and I’m ashamed to admit that sometimes I was impatient with her for it. But then a co-worker, after hanging out with my daughter for the sixth or seventh time, gave me a gift. He gave me a metaphor. He said, “Your daughter is like a cat. If you approach her straight on, her instinct is to scamper away. But if you let it happen in her time, she settles in, and then she is very outgoing.”

My co-worker’s metaphor ended up being a huge blessing to me. While I obviously didn’t treat my daughter like an actual cat, that description of her made me more perceptive of her moods and movements. It helped me create a space that is more comfortable for her. It also made me more patient. No exaggeration, the first thing I want to do when I see my daughter in the morning is swoop in, lift her off the ground, and wrap her in a giant bear hug. And there are still some mornings when I do that. But most days, I say “Good morning” in gentler, quieter ways. I let her arrive in the Moment, trusting that five minutes later she’s going to be ready for that big hug.

This experience with my daughter inclines me to agree with Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who speculated that metaphor was “the most fertile power possessed by man.” And to agree with science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card, who said, “Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.”

Metaphors bring people and ideas together. They can make the strange familiar. And they can help us see the familiar in new ways.

To help make grant writing both strange and familiar, there is a metaphor I’d like to unpack: that of news reporting. 

I’ve done a fair amount of freelance journalism over the years. And of course I’ve written a lot of grants. But it wasn’t until I had been doing both for about eight years that I saw the similarities. Here are a few ways comparing the two has been useful to me:

1. The metaphor demystifies the grant writing process

I meet people all the time who are intimidated by grant writing. They don’t know who can do it or what it entails. One of the goals of The Resourceful Community is to pull back the veil, empowering and equipping you to write winning grant applications. If it seems too esoteric in the meantime, try to imagine the grant writer as a kind of reporter.

Good grant writing has a lot in common with good news reporting. You talk to the right people, do the right research, and then present the information in a way that is most compelling for the audience.

When I can adhere to this basic process, I am much more likely to write a great grant.

2. The metaphor communicates my expectations to clients and collaborators

But what happens if you can’t talk to the right people? What if you're not given access to the statistics, program data, and background research you need to substantiate your organization's need and approach?

In short, grant writing becomes less like journalism and more like fiction writing.

That’s not good for anyone, and your chances of success go way down. Convey up-front how important collaboration and cooperation are to the outcome of the grant.

3. The metaphor keeps me on track

Beginning grant writers inadvertently present information in ways that alienate their audience — a foundation board, program officer, or grant reader. The application often takes on the stridency of a manifesto or the flowery, inspirational language of a promotional brochure.

Again, not good for anyone. 

In fact, a grant is subject to many of the same standards as the lead story in your local paper: accuracy, verifiability (with accurate statistics and up-to-date research), clarity, and brevity.

4. The metaphor inspires me

I don’t read grants for fun. In my free time, one of the things I like best is to read my favorite magazines (The New Yorker, High Country News, Orion). It’s helpful for me to know that the qualities I need to develop to be a good grant writer are the same qualities possessed by the likes of Gay Talese, John McPhee, Joan Didion, and Roger Angell.

Like a journalist, a great grant writer needs to be curious, tenacious, industrious, truthful, and a good listener. She has to be thick-skinned and she must be able to meet deadlines. And she has to take the craft of writing seriously.

Questions: There is nothing sacred about this metaphor, but so far it has proven to be extremely useful. What other connections exist between grant writing and news reporting that I haven't explored here? What metaphors have impacted your life and work?

Image Credit: Roger H. Goun