Nonprofit stories are about meeting a need. Scientific or research stories ask a question. Nonprofits use storytelling in grant proposals, marketing materials, annual campaigns, appeals, and other promotional documents. They do this so well that storytelling recently became a major theme of grant writing training opportunities. Similarities exist between the nonprofit world and the research university. Whether we like to admit it or not, an individual researcher, a laboratory group, or a larger collaborative effort are really nonprofit centers that function within the larger nonprofit that is the university.
So why not harness the power of story in research and scientific grant proposals?
Typically, scientists don’t think of their grant proposals as having stories. Successful scientists with funded grant proposals and publications from those grants are likely very good storytellers. Unlike the colleagues in humanities, they don’t really think about it, but intuitively understand the powerful stories that numbers and scientific images can tell. A research publication tells a story that has an ending. A grant proposal is a story of a beginning, a possibility, or a future. Both types of stories are cyclically linked through the scientific method, which in its unique way is a type of story.
Stories engage the reader’s imagination from the beginning. In a story we want to know “What happens next?” Scientists are curious people, who are always asking, “What’s next?” or “What if?” Research stories of grant proposals are all about the questions of, “What happens next?” or more likely “What if…?” These questions arise from finding a knowledge gap in the researcher’s field of interest. Peer reviewers are no different. It is about engaging their imaginations about the research question so they ask “What happens next?” Furthermore, a grant proposal explains the background, frames the question to be answered, and outlines the path the researcher wishes to take.
How is a scientific or research grant proposal a story?
Three interwoven stories comprise a grant proposal. They are the stories of the past, the present, and the future. Past, present, and future stories align well with the required components of grant proposals for the major federal funding agencies. The past story tells of the significant findings leading up to the knowledge gap. The present story poses the question and examines the current state of knowledge around the question including preliminary results. The present story speaks to the available resources necessary for the proposed experiments. Both the past and the present stories tell of the qualifications of the proposer(s). Together these two interwoven stories reveal a sense of person and place ready for the unknown experimental work. The future story tells of the journey required to answer the proposed question. Nonprofit stories are about a journey to meet a need. Some of the oldest and best stories of humankind are about journeys. Are you ready for the quest?