The Story in Rosa’s Home

One day last March, a young woman named Rosa welcomed me, a coworker, and a photographer into her home, a duplex on a quiet street in Plainfield, New Jersey.  Rosa and her husband had recently bought the refurbished home from my organization, and she was allowing us to share the story of her family.

The success story is a critical tool in the communications toolbox of nonprofits.  It cannot convey the same breadth of impact as data and program studies, but when most effective, its portrayal of the human spirit elicits an emotional resonance and empathy in the reader, inspiring actions—policies, donations, engagement—that not even the most impressive numbers can induce on their own.

I was composing Rosa’s story for our annual report.  I had composed a handful of success stories (good ones, I think) based on brief phone interviews, but since annual reports were among our most substantial and widely distributed communications pieces, I thought that it would be worthwhile to make the long drive to Rosa’s home and talk to her in person.

It was.  While Rosa’s story was fundamentally one of having a home of her own and raising her children in a safe and healthy environment—invaluable circumstances in and of themselves, to be sure—I saw that her story was also about something more.  It was about the car decals on the wall above her elder son’s crib.  The smell of her mother’s cooking from upstairs.  The tranquility with which her month-old baby boy slept by the living room window.

Those scenes seemed to me to represent what a home really meant to Rosa.  We wanted our supporters to feel that each of the hundreds of residential properties we built or financed that year—or would built in the next year—would offer someone the same value of home.

Example: A Response on Implementation

Here is another example of grant text I composed:  a section of a two-page narrative on implementation of a small business loan program.  I chose this text in particular because this application was one of the only ones I have composed in which the organization was awarded more than what was requested.

“REBUILD loans are intended to help businesses address immediate needs for building repairs, equipment and inventory replacement, rent or mortgage payments, salary expenses, and utility costs that may threaten their ability to reopen their doors and reestablish themselves as they wait for long-term support. Loans range from $10,000 to $30,000, extend up to 24 months, and maintain an interest rate of 3.00%, with up to three months interest-free. There are no fees associated with REBUILD.

In the weeks after Sandy, NJCC had discussions with a variety of stakeholders to identify voids in services for those recovering from the storm. Small businesses regularly emerged as a key constituency that faced substantial losses and that had unmet needs for immediate low-interest capital to support their recovery. NJCC began raising capital for the fund in November 2012 and began its outreach in key hard-hit areas of Jersey City and Asbury Park in early December. By the time it closed its first loan on December 20–a $30,000 loan to an architectural hardware company in Jersey City that faced over five feet of flooding–NJCC had raised over $3 million in lending capital and contributed $750,000 of its own funds to REBUILD, enough to expand the reach of the program to the rest of New Jersey.

NJCC has since supported several other New Jersey-based businesses in covering their urgent rebuilding and operating expenses, including a series of boardwalk restaurants, an independent theater, an online clothing store, a fitness equipment retailer, a convenience store, an auto repair shop, and a bicycle store. NJCC will maintain relationships with REBUILD borrowers via continued communication from loan officers and the regular collection of borrower profiles and outcome data. Concurrently, NJCC is still promoting REBUILD by disseminating new promotional materials to business advocates in hard-hit areas, presenting and holding one-on-one meetings at locally organized Sandy forums and resource information sessions, distributing information via its website and social media outlets, and encouraging word-of-mouth among both current and potential borrowers.”

Example: A Brief Response on Need

With my prior post in mind, here is an example of a response for a grant request I wrote recently, which was limited to 2000 characters.  The response conveys the need being addressed via the program highlighted in the application.

“As of May 2014, 8.12% of mortgaged homes in New Jersey were in foreclosure, the highest rate in the nation. New Jersey’s lengthy foreclosure process (almost three years per mortgage) prolongs the insecurity of the distressed families, obstructs recovery of vacant properties, and delays the stabilization of local housing markets. New Jersey’s low-income communities have been hit hardest by the crisis: for example, in 2011, every zip code in Newark had exceedingly high foreclosure and delinquency rates, all between 25 and 40%.

The ongoing crisis has also led to an increase in housing vacancy: in Newark, census data shows that the housing vacancy rate grew from 9% at the end of 2005 to 12% at the end of 2009 and to upwards of 15% in 2012. The abundance and concentration of abandonment in Newark neighborhoods increases illicit activity, decreases surrounding property values, and negatively impacts the city tax base.

New Jersey also faces a growing deficiency in quality affordable housing, especially for low-income renters. According to 2011 Census data, 32% of New Jersey households spent over half of their income on housing costs (including 31% in Newark), up from 28% in 2008. In 2013, the hourly wages of the average New Jersey rental household was $8.50 less than what was needed to rent the average two-bedroom unit, one of the largest disparities in the country. In each county of New Jersey, there are only 20 to 40 available affordable rental units for every 100 extremely low-income renters.

The four Newark communities that NJCC is targeting through SHCI are especially distressed. In the nine census tracts in these places where NJCC’s interventions are most concentrated, the median income is close to $34,000, the poverty rate is over 33%, and the rate of housing vacancy is 21.2%, far above area rates. Concurrently, the average of the median rents of the tracts is $1,013, creating extreme burdens to a household earning the average income of these areas.”

Asking for Money, In Brief

In a recent Times opinion piece entitled “Keep It Short,” writer Danny Heitman offers that “writing…must eventually answer to the clock,” because “the reader’s attention is not without end.”

Heitman’s audience is other journalists, but his credo applies to any form of consumed text.  Brevity is a real challenge for any writer who has lots to say, but it is critical to effective communication.

Grant writers have no choice.  The “clock” is often imposed by grant makers in the form of page, word, and character limits.  The author must squeeze all of the needs of their clients or community—or all of the benefits of their work—in a very tight box.  1001 characters might be one too many.

I believe that the ability to do this well is in part a matter of mindset.  For a grant writer, the task of conveying a complete message in a confined space is a puzzle to be solved.  A character limit is not a burden; it is an aide in restraining any temptation to flourish and to stray from the core message.

Thoroughness remains paramount.  The strangers reading the proposal should understand as much as possible about why the organization and program are so important.  But their attentions are not without end.