November 12, 2021

Lifting Up the Voices that Matter

Grant writing is my antidote to the daily news. Stories about crime, violence, and politics often funnel my mind into a gray place of frustration, fear, and anger. But grant writing brings me back by allowing me to focus on the many, often under the radar, acts of heroism made daily by non-profit organizations and the community. Preparing proposals to seek funding for this work requires deep dives into the background and thinking—the innovation, creativity, and genius behind this work. The slow work to create systemic change in education equity may not earn a sound bite on the evening news. But it is inspiring. It is rejuvenating. And I am proud to play a small part in this work.

Yet, even in writing about the assets of the community, grant applications typically begin with the Needs Statement. What is the problem we are working to change? Like the news, this section invites hair-raising figures that go back to those dark places—the steep increases in crime rates, persistently low graduation rates, high unemployment figures. We work to paint a picture of the drastic need that funding will address. But how do we do this in a way that doesn’t leave behind the community’s voice, hope—and humanity?

Three of us from The Grant Plant had the opportunity to attend the Grant Professionals Association annual conference last week. Keynote speaker Kia Jarmon, a leader in the intersection of community, culture, crisis, and communication, helped to bring some of this thinking to the surface with a stark question: “Based on the stories I tell in my work, am I contributing to the help or harm of the community we serve?”

How do we ensure our grant narratives are contributing to the deeper understanding of a community—not just singly focused on bringing in much-needed funding? Jarmon’s talk, along with reflection with my colleagues and online sources* have helped to inform the following ideas:

  • Focus on the assets. Rather than looking at communities as a list of needs to be fixed, how do we instead use the Needs Statement to highlight the assets in the community that funding will help to tap; the people who are on the ground making their own change? Deficits feel helpless and huge. Assets feel empowering and possible. Write a needs statement that you would be proud for the grantee community to read.
  • Describe a community the way they describe themselves. Highlight the good that is happening, and the support that is needed to leverage this good for more good. Use the terms the community has worked diligently to define. For example, does a client refer to themselves as Indigenous, Native American, or American Indian? Learn what terms they have already thought deeply about, and put their voice forward to the funder. Do not be unfairly critical by defining a community only in terms of dropout rates, crime, or poverty. These things are real challenges, but they are only part of the story.
  • Educate the funder. We aren’t providing a service to “others.” We are serving our own community; we are part of the society who will benefit from the funding. The funder is invited into this work, not as an anonymous investor, but as a partner. While the funder may use a term such as “client” in their RFP, take the opportunity to explain that we instead choose to refer to “relatives,” those with whom we are inextricably linked. Use stories and quotes from the community members themselves so that they can directly narrate the needs and the visioning for solutions.
  • Words matter. Be careful about using buzzwords and cliches. You might be reinforcing a stereotype, and “otherness.” If you mean to say black youth, low-income youth, LGBTQ+ youth, or youth who have dropped out of school, state this. Don’t assume that these populations and funders agree on what it means to be “marginalized,” which leaves space for a reader to apply his or her own stereotypes. Don’t make assumptions, such as that a group is low-income due to their race or another defining characteristic. Empower the community you are writing for by thoughtfully and accurately defining them. Help the funder to “see” them.
  • Don’t sugarcoat. Writing with an asset-based voice doesn’t mean you avoid the challenges. It just means that the grant proposal helps the funder to see the whole picture, with a focus on the possibility offered by the group applying for funding, the assets they bring to the work, and how funding will make a real, positive change. This work is led by the community and for the community, rather than done “to” the community. Jarmon’s keynote asked the question, “How many times is the staff or the organization the ‘savior’ in the story? Do people need to be saved, or do they want the resources to lead their own saving?”
  • Positive outcomes. Along with reducing drop out (a shorter-term goal), we can work to increase graduation (a longer-term goal). Along with reducing suicide (a longer-term goal), we can increase Social Emotional Learning and a sense of confidence and persistence among youth (a shorter-term goal). Real impact takes time, and it is important our metrics demonstrate small changes we are working on now, that will help the progress toward bigger, system-level goals. Invite a funder into the long-term vision.

“History has the ability to cement us, or invisibilize us,” Jarmon stated. “Which stories will you repeat? What will you forget? What will you revise?” Words have power, and the work of grant writing can illuminate the fuller, whole-picture narrative. It gives us the privilege—and the responsibility—of entering into a story and an area of work, drawing to the surface the wisdom and knowledge of a community that has been able to identify areas they want to change, and the ideas and expertise and hope that they’ve cultivated through lived experience. That is why grant writing is my antidote to the daily news. It gives me the vantage to see the real, sustainable change that is being made all around us, and challenges me to tell that story honestly and wholly. That is inspiring.

Contact: Cecily Peterson, Director of Resource Development,

*Sources for inspiration:

“Words Matter: Amplifying the Voices Through an Asset Based Approach,” sourced from

Kia Jarmon,

Azel-Lute, Miriam, “The Opposite of Deficit-Based Language Isn’t Asset-Based Language. It’s Truth-Telling,” Nov. 12, 2019, sourced from

“The HERE to HERE Language Guide: A Resource for Using Asset-Based Language with Young People,” July 2020, sourced from

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