June 6, 2018

How Can Hollywood Help You Write a Winning Proposal?

Nearly everyone has a favorite movie with lines and moments they can recall years later. What makes movies so memorable? The viewer understands the problems and obstacles the hero faces, his or her desires, how achieving that goal or goals will change the world– and it’s clear when the problem is resolved.

This scenario kind of sounds like a grant proposal, doesn’t it? As a grantseeker, you want your reviewer to understand the issues your “world” (the community or population you are serving) faces, what the “hero” (your organization or program) hopes to achieve, the obstacles the hero and world face, and a clear idea of what the world looks like when the problem is solved.The good news is, there is a solid formula that most movies follow that you can use for your next proposal. Here is a graphic of what almost every story ever told looks like:

This structure is used in almost every Hollywood movie, setting up a story that is engaging from the opening sentence, cohesive throughout, and that grips the viewer until the very end. While the exact structure of every grant proposal is different, here is a basic breakdown of how to organize the story of your organization or program in a Hollywood-worthy way:

  • Inciting Incident: The opening moment is designed to hook the audience. The best movies make you think, “Wow, this is going to be good! What happens next!?” No matter what structure the application requires, try to tell the reviewer right away who you are, what your program is, what you’re asking for, and how it will change the world. Movies have a few moments meant to hook the audience, while the grant writer has one or two sentences. You want reviewers to think, “That’s a worthy goal, now how will they accomplish it?”
  • Exposition: Why should the audience care about the story they’re about to watch? A good movie makes you care about the characters, understand their circumstances quickly, and root for them to overcome their problems. In a grant proposal, this is typically your needs statement and/or community description. You need to make the reviewer picture your target population and community, and the issues they are facing. Where movies have visuals, you have statistics. Movies pick only the most compelling and high-quality images to convey a message (and, importantly, they relate directly to the problem that will be solved). You should be picky too. Use just enough compelling and reliable data to prove there is a problem, but don’t overload your reviewer with pages of numbers.
  • Point of Attack: This is the moment in the story when the problem has a chance to be solved – when the hero gets their super powers. It makes the audience think, “That’s exactly what this world needs! We’re ready to tackle this problem!” In grant proposals, this is the organization description and background. Your super powers are your staff, history, evidence-base, or other proof that you’re good at what you do. It’s important that you tie this section directly to the problem. If the hero is fighting a giant underwater monster, the solution won’t be a high school football coach who can inspire their team. If the problem you present is low graduation rates, the reviewer wants to know how well you will tackle that problem specifically. Focus this section on your organization’s super powers (capacity) to solve the problem presented in the exposition.
  • Rising Action: This is the meat of the story – the journey that the hero goes on to solve the problem. You learn of the hero’s allies and the strategies they use when unexpected issues arise, and you can easily follow the actions they take to resolve the problem at hand. In your proposal, this will typically be split among several sections, including your program description, partners, lessons learned from past experiences, and systems used to deal with unanticipated issues. It is important that everything you put here relates back to your exposition and inciting incident. A football coach who creates a great team and seeks advice from their mentor may solve problem, but that won’t defeat a giant underwater monster.
  • Climax: The entire movie has been building to this moment. It is when the question, “Will this problem get solved?” is answered. It is clear that the giant underwater monster has been defeated. For your proposal, this is your outcomes section. These outcomes should directly tie back to the exposition/needs statement. If the hero has been fighting a giant underwater monster, the movie doesn’t switch at the end to show you a high school football team that overcame all odds to win the state championship. While that may sound silly, it’s a trap that many grant writers fall into. They set up a strong problem but, in the end, their outcomes don’t actually solve or even relate to that problem. For every issue you describe in your needs statement, there needs to be a measurable outcome you can deliver on. If you can’t deliver an outcome to solve the problem, don’t bring up that problem (no matter how compelling it may be).
  • Denouement/Falling Action: This is the proof that the story you just watched actually made a difference. You are reminded of the journey the hero took, and you see what the world looks like as a better place. In grant proposals, this proof is your budget and required attachments. Your budget, letters of commitment, 501(c)3 determination letter, and whatever else the proposal asks for are all proof you can do what you promise. Imagine the hero defeats the underwater monster and then, instantly, the movie cuts to the credits without any further resolution. How unsatisfying would that be? Could you trust that the hero actually defeated the monster? Is the world going to be OK? This approach could make a great movie unwatchable. The same is true for your proposal. Don’t leave the reviewer questioning your ability to pull off your amazing work; instead, make sure they have the proof needed to eliminate any questions that the solution you laid out will actually happen. As always, it must relate to the rest of your proposal.

Now that you know how Hollywood writes gripping stories, use the above six sections to outline a proposal. The next time you write a grant, pull it out and you’ll already have done most of the work for yourself! This approach will help ensure that your proposal is strong, connected, and grips the reviewer from beginning to end.

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