Funders should help grant recipients tell their stories

In 2007 there was a Third Sector article which featured an interview with the chief executive of a large grant funder. In the article he talked about the role of funders in encouraging storytelling within the projects they supported – an area very close to my heart.

It took over six months to get a meeting with him, but when we met we had a lively conversation about the role funders should play in skilling up and training the people to whom they give grants to help them capture their stories.

That conversation was nearly four years ago and although a little progress has been made in the funding environment in the intervening years – for example, I have been involved in some marketing and digital media training work with grantees – in general I still believe much more needs to be done.

I met the director of another large funder recently and she felt exactly the same, although lots of discussion on this topic is taking place.

As we all acknowledge, the next few years are going to be extremely tough and there will be more organisations applying for fewer grants. I think it’s the responsibility of grant funders to ensure that organisations are equipped with the skills to tell their stories.

Communications, marketing and digital skills shouldn’t be seen as a nice extra but an important part of the support that is provided. This will give people confidence to keep their stories alive once the funding runs out.

The question is – when organisations write up their funding bids, should they put training as a small part of their budget? Or should it be offered as part of the support package a funder offers?

I think that funders should make it a requirement of accepting a grant that recipients are compelled to keep a blog, capture photographs or produce some kind of content which they should be able to use online. In turn, the charity or community group can use this content for their own marketing, communcations and profile raising.

I know for many charities, particularly smaller ones, this kind of content gathering will be seem as a big ask, especially with feedback forms and other paperwork to fill in, but I have a sneaky feeling that this will be a key part of impact reporting in the year ahead.

I think both parties will benefit hugely, as long as they know how to maximise this content.

Last year I was the very proud recipient of a series of grants for a pilot project I delivered offering a respite break in London for carers. In the budget I included the cost for a professional photographer to capture the trip and other content.

Unprompted, I offered multmedia content to all the funders and corporates who had been involved and most used it in some way – whether on their Facebook, websites or via their Twitter channel. In addition, different media channels including the BBC, The Guardian and regional outlets were delighted to take the content. A  real result as far as I’m concerned.

So in the year ahead I’d like:

– To see more funders offering ‘storytelling’ training, in whatever guise that might take, as part of their package for grant recipients. The long-term rewards will be a real benefit.

– To see funders cutting down written feedback forms to encourage different kinds of impact reporting.

– To see people apply for grants, including training, in their budgets so that they can ensure they have the right skills to tell their stories.

– For everyone, whether the funder or fundee, to recognise that there is simply no point in leaving photographs, video footage, or oral history content in an office to gathe dust, and to ensure that this material is used to maximise impact.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  • Mark Wheddon


    I am the Programme Manager for ‘Local Food’, a £57.5m Big Lottery Funded open grants programme, which has the main aim of making ‘locally grown food accessible and affordable to local communities’.

    It was heartening to read your blog, especially as we are increasingly doing many of the things you say funders should be engaged in.

    Since the launch of our programme in March 2008, we have always placed great emphasis not only on providing support to groups during their application and delivery stages through our Local Food Advisers, but also on encouraging peer to peer support and getting applicant groups to share, learn and improve by telling their stories to one another and sharing their experiences.

    One of the ways we do this is through a series of training events. These take place at pre- application stage and continue when projects have been awarded funding. Although each event has its own individual focus, from looking at how to successfully deliver project outcomes, thinking creatively about their sustainability, or improving their resilience, one of the equally important reasons for holding the events is to allow groups to meet each other, share their successes and problems, and learn from their experiences.
    To date, we have held more than 50 of these events across England, with over 800 people attending and benefiting individually, and then taking this learning back to their projects and communities.

    The value to projects is echoed through their anecdotal feedback:

    “Listening and picking up ideas of how other people overcome similar problems that are shared. Enjoyed learning about and listening to other projects”
    “Hearing about different projects and learning from them. Focusing on sustainability and ways to make the project pay for itself”

    We have bolstered these events by providing groups with an online ‘foodecommunity’, where awarded projects can easily publish their stories, and share good and bad experiences through their blogs. We are in the latter stages of opening this area up to the much wider internet audience. Here are a couple of our more colourful ‘fooderesidents’ blogs as an example!


    Storytelling is vital and forms the backbone of much of our publicity and our efforts to analyse the impact of Local Food so far. Our Local Food ‘Big Review’ http://bigreview.localfoodgrants.org/  demonstrates the impacts the projects continue to deliver.  Allowing and encouraging groups tell their own stories and share their experiences through visual media really brings the projects to life and showcases the real difference they are making.

  • David Wilcox

    Hi Jude – this is a really important idea, and it’s great that you are championing it. Maybe now’s the time for lift off.

    John Popham and I have been helping Big Lottery Fund explore this further as you’ll see from a series of posts on socialreporters.net. Guest blogger Will Perrin suggests how hyperlocal sites can help http://www.socialreporters.net/?p=235

    Maybe we should co-organise a get-together on this, particularly if BIG would help host?

  • Thaler Pekar

    Thank you for your insight, Jude! I appreciate your call for training, as, too often, funders ask, as the annual report is going to press, “Quick, we need a story!” Moreover, a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of what a story is, and how to gather and ethically share stories, ultimately hurts, rather than helps the sector and all involved.

    To your point that funders might “encourage different kinds of impact reporting”, the Slingshot Fund is using video as a story collection and knowledge sharing tool, in place of mid-grant reports. You can read more here: http://neurocooking.blogspot.com/2010/05/not-just-reading-about-but-seeing.html

    To help nonprofits gets started in sharing their stories, here is a link to a short article on 7 Tips for Finding Stories: http://pndblog.typepad.com/pndblog/2011/06/7-tips-for-finding-stories-in-your-organization.html

    Thanks again, Jude.

  • Alec Leggat

    Distribution is always the probelm, isn’t it? Even when donors support storytelling and case studies as a form of impact reporting it doesn’t often get into the wider public domain. In fact, it often doesn’t get into the narrower domain of the particular sector you work in. It can be quite demoralising producing reports and gathering case studies and facilitating storytelling when you have no idea what the donor does with it beyond a few misguided comments in repsonse to your annual report.

    I also wonder if an increased acceptance of storytelling, hearing the voices of “project beneficiaries” would encourage more stories about how projects didn’t work and an understanding that we can learn from our “mistakes or see the unintended consequences of an intervention.

  • Jude Habib

    There is a really interesting discussion going on here. Thanks so much for your comments and for contributing. I know that there are some examples of funders really moving in the right direction and offering some great opportunities to the people they fund. I do think that Big Lottery Fund are leading thee Mark and Thaler thanks for sharing those links – extremely useful. Alec perhaps my biggest source of frustration is what you refer to as distribution of content (ie stories) and I’d call cross promotion – I have a 10 channel rule and if orgs funders aren’t using the content across at least 10 different comms channels they aren’t highlighting the story in the best way.

  • Benwiv

    I could not agree more with the thrust of this article…As an experienced fundraising manager across a range of discplines; trusts/foundations, statutory, corporate and direct marketing (as well as PR/Comms) I often found myself at loggerheads with Directors (although usually not Trustees) who seemed to view ‘telling out story’ as selling out.

    It’s an attitude that I’ve always found baffling and frustrating. Firstly, many of the people who benefit are desperate to tell their story to benefit others and to validate their own experience.Secondly, for most charities, the impact that they have on the lives of the people they exist to support is their ‘business’ – processes and outputs are no more than a means to an end. For a sector that never tires of championing itself as a lone voice of humanity in an increasingly materialistic world, it’s deeply ironic that we never seem to want to put people at the heart of our public message (and if we do they’re very often dry, formulaic case studies).

    Having worked for a medical charity and an overseas development charity, I’ve heard some harrowing stories and others that lift your heart. It’s no exageration to say that some of the people I’ve come into contact with have even changed the way I view the world and my relationships with those around me. It’s profound stuff and draining work, but it’s what we do – it’s the difference we make – and we should celebrate it. Taken as read that it’s done sensitively and ethically, refusing to speak about the work that we do is a betrayal of what we stand for. All too often ‘ethical’ concerns are a fig leaf that people hide behind in order not to push themselves out of their comfort zones.

    With my PR hat on, I’ve always made sure that the charities I worked for have a human face and that stories are shared across print, electronic and broadcast media. I’ve always exceeded my financial targets too and I don’t think that’s any coincidence.

  • Isabelle Lemaire

    Really interesting article. Thanks for posting on this. Interestingly enough, we’re (insightshare.org) working with two groups of young and vulnerable women in Uganda and Guatemala on Participatory Video and M&E. These girls have been making films with us for the past six months or so trying to find out what are the aspects of girls programming that can make it more or less successful. The girls have been doing this M&E using the Most Significant Change technique and have made some really amazing movies so far. Here is an example of a compilation of those films: http://vimeo.com/34797751

    Would love to keep this discussion going on how we can make sure beneficiaries have a say in the development debate and can actually be agents of change for better AID using participatory media tools.

  • Wally Harbert

    Exactly right, Instead of tearing ourselves apart about whether trustees should be paid, it would be better to spend time considering how we can restore the spirit of charity,

  • Heather Buckingham

    Thank you for these comments, Rob; and, as it happens, I agree with much of what you say. You are right to point out that volunteers may in practice have much the same skills as paid employees, at least in the sense that, once someone has acquired a set of skills (or experiences, etc.), they can make a choice to use these in a voluntary rather than a paid capacity (or vice versa). However, one thing that the paper highlights is that this choice is likely to be constrained, for instance by people’s financial and family circumstances, and as a result there may be considerable variation between communities in terms of the extent and nature of volunteering. Also, regardless of volunteers’ skills and experience, there are perhaps differences in the demands and guarantees that organisations can make of, or expect from, volunteers compared with paid staff, which may have implications for service provision.

    It is perhaps worth pointing out too that the discussion paper – which incidentally has a question mark at the end of its title (although this seems to have dropped off somewhere along the way) – is intended as just that: a presentation of different research findings in order to provoke debate. So just to clarify, for instance, the view referred to above about how volunteers cannot be expected to deal with complex client needs is one that has been expressed in interviews by some of the TSOs we’ve been researching. This is not a position that TSRC is endorsing, or claiming is entirely representative.

    It is is really interesting to hear your thoughts on this, however; and I agree that the current context of budget cuts may offer an opportunity for volunteers (and perhaps paid third sector staff too?) to work increasingly ‘outside of the state’, in a way that could be less encumbered by the constraints associated with state funding. Perhaps this might also lead to more radical, value-driven voluntary action, and that is a research question which we are keen to explore. However, this raises further questions about what this kind of action might look like, who will be doing it, where will they be doing it, and why – any thoughts anyone?