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How grant writers use storytelling to capture their audiences’ attention and money

Region 9 Economic Development Center hires first full-time grant writer
Beth Lamberson, left, started her grant-writing career at Adaptive Sports Association at Purgatory Resort, and now Ann Marie Beresford, executive director of the Adaptive Sports Association, writes up the grants. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The best situation a grant writer can hope for is having a grant reviewer nod along in agreement with a grant application, says Beth Lamberson, a grant writer of 30 years in Durango.

Her advice is to write with an authoritative voice, use declarative sentences to communicate clients’ needs and be clear about how grant funding will further clients’ goals.

“You’re not saying, ‘We hope,’” Lamberson said. “You’re saying, ‘We will ...’ ‘We are ... .’”

Grants can provide helpful boosts of income to nonprofits, businesses and municipal governments. They help determine whether certain programs or services will get off the ground. A skilled grant writer can help land these all-important sources of funding.

For the hundreds of nonprofits based in rural Southwest Colorado, in-house grant writing is usually hung on the shoulders of the executive director, said Lynn Urban, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Colorado. But time is finite, and balancing the search for supplemental funding with other duties can become a tricky task to manage. That’s when professional grant-writing services can help.

Lamberson said she once secured separate grants for $20,000 and $150,000 from the Colorado Department of Transportation for the town of Bayfield by telling the town’s story.

Bayfield needed funding for sidewalk improvements on the west end of Main Street. The town is surrounded by tourist hubs such as Vallecito Lake, Pagosa Springs and Durango, she said. But Bayfield itself? Bayfield’s niche is its lumberyard, a hardware store and other local businesses.

CDOT contacted Lamberson asking for more information, like who is using the Main Street intersection?

She proposed an informal traffic study, she said. Around 4:30 p.m., she watched the traffic that traveled Bayfield’s Main Street from a second-story window at town hall.

“These are (CDOT) engineers and folks in Denver,” Lamberson said. “Have they been to Bayfield? I pointed out the super busy Highway 160.”

The engineers are probably familiar with the highway, she said, but what about what’s happening three blocks over?

“It was really fun with that grant to explain that this is the entry to a historic street and the sidewalks aren’t in compliance with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act),” she said. “In fact, if two people want to walk on them, you have to go single file.”

Lamberson took notes about what activity she saw on Main Street. Her notes included cyclists and dog walkers. She recalled walking to lunch and having to step off the sidewalk into the road to allow room for a woman pushing her child in a stroller.

“We sent that info in and it bolstered the grant,” she said.

Several key elements are behind a successful grant application: a solid understanding of the grantee and its needs, an acute awareness of the targeted audience and the ability to address those concepts through a compelling story that stands out among competing grant applicants.

Lamberson, who has worked on both the application and approval sides of grant writing, wrote her first grant in 1989. She has been absorbed in grant writing for the last three decades, she said.

She wrote her first grant request to the Ballantine Family Fund. The grant was for $1,500 for general operating expenses, which is a bit of a rarity in the world of grant writing since it is rare for philanthropists to fund routine costs such as bills and payroll, she said.

For Lamberson, grant writing became an opportunity to tell the story of a nonprofit to an interested party, she said.


Tiffany Brodersen was hired in January by Region 9 Economic Development District as its first full-time grant writer. She has 14 years of experience in grant writing, working with nonprofits, schools, businesses and government agencies to acquire funding.

She has always loved storytelling, she said. It’s just that grant writing requires a very specific kind of storytelling.

Brodersen got her start in grant writing after graduating from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. She worked on a board that needed help with fundraising, including grant writing, she said.

Her first paid grant writing gig was as an executive assistant at a nonprofit on Colorado’s Front Range, she said. She simply loved it.

“Since then, I’ve been helping people with grants administration, from writing to managing them, to the reporting and everything that falls in between,” she said.

Targeting audiences

While storytelling is a key factor for successful grant applications, the sort of story told might need to be a subtle one depending on the granter, Brodersen said. Grant applications to the federal government, especially, are technical.

The feds, and often state governments, ask for specific information in grant applications. They want demographics and an exact picture of the population their money would serve, she said.

The Region 9 Economic Development Center offers a plethora of data and statistics that grant writers can put to good use. Even before being hired by the center, Brodersen regularly checked its website for regional data about demographics, cost of living, population centers and so forth, she said.

State governments tend to be a bit less stringent than the feds, she said.

She said governments, businesses and nonprofits are totally immersed in their worlds. They have their own lingo – an entire language that makes sense to them but might not translate well to someone outside their sphere.

Brodersen likes to ask her clients for an elevator pitch – a 30- to 60-second summary – to help her identify the fundamental needs an organization wants to fulfill with a grant. She said those brief summaries help her develop an application that is digestible to grant reviewers who may not be familiar with the particulars of a specific industry.

Even technical grant applications need to be easily readable and clear, she said.

Beth Lamberson left, started her grant-writing career at Adaptive Sports Association at Purgatory Resort, and now Ann Marie Beresford, executive director of the Adaptive Sports Association, writes up the grants. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Challenges in an ever-evolving funding landscape

Perhaps the biggest challenge grant writers face is the ever-changing funding landscape, Brodersen said.

Foundations that offer grants have a history of funding specific projects or programs. They are less interested in helping an organization keep its lights on, she said.

But that attitude may be shifting, partly because COVID-19 affected organizations’ needs, and partly because younger people joining grant review committees are more trusting that grant money will be well-spent, she said.

As a result, more general operating funds are becoming available through foundation grants.

Another hurdle Brodersen has experienced is grant reporting – a process that communicates to granters how their funds are being used. She said there are times when she has spent as much time reporting on spending as she did on the grant application to begin with.

But a shift is occurring in reporting requirements as well, at least for foundations, she said.

Rather than requests for specific metrics or data, foundations are wanting to hear more about specific successes the grants facilitated.

“I think for them, that paints a better story and a better picture of how the grant funds were actually spent,” Brodersen said.

Foundations like to share the positive stories on social media and through public outreach about direct impacts their grants have on people, she said.

One aspect of fluctuating funding landscapes that won’t be going away any time soon is the shifts in policies that follow changing federal government administrations, Brodersen said.

“The last few years we’ve just been swinging from party to party, to party, right?” she said. “That’s kind of like a whiplash all around, but particularly in the funding landscape.”


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