Keynote to Grant Professionals: Are the Stories You Tell Helping or Hurting?

“When we are mindful of authentic, truthful history we can see the humanity in people, and only when we do that can change occur,” said Kia Jarmon as she began the keynote address for the Grant Professionals Association (GPA) conference in Seattle, Wash., running Nov. 3-6. She continued: “You must be willing to interrogate the world you are in and ask yourself how you know what you believe is true? What if all that you learned is not true? Who is interpreting the history being shared?”

Jarmon, known as Kiss with a Fist, is a consultant, teacher, champion of philanthropy, and recognized leader in diversity, equity, and inclusion. She challenged participants in the audience and watching remotely at the hybrid conference, to question the fixed lens through which they view the world and become passionately curious about people and viewpoints they don’t understand.

“Fearing what you don’t understand is a dangerous position in which to find yourself,” she said, noting that implicit biases connect with and support systemic inequity and repression.

Pointing out research on the neuro-coupling power of storytelling, Jarmon explained how stories can shape the world around us, push us to an outcome, help us grapple with realities, and remind us that other realities also exist. “Stories help people relate to one another and recognize their shared humanity,” she said. Through a brief hands-on exercise, participants exchanged personal, six-word stories and Jarmon drove home her point that sharing our stories connects us and builds respectful relationships.

Jarmon, who is experienced in grant seeking and grant administration, acknowledged that the stories told must reflect an organization’s mission, grantmaker interests, and the needs and realities of the people served. Still, she challenged grant professionals to honestly assess whether the stories they are sharing in grant proposals are helping or hurting the people their organizations serve. She asked what the community’s emotional experience would be if they read the stories written about them in the proposals. “People and communities are complex with unique needs,” she said. “Unless we’re careful the grants process can push us farther away from relating to the humanity of the people we serve.”

When promoting their mission and services, it’s all too easy for organizations to rely on stories that unintentionally exploit those the organization wishes to assist. “There is your truth, their truth, and the truth,” she said. “We need to bring all of this into one place and listen carefully to the people with the lived stories. We need to go into places beyond our own echo chamber.”

Jarmon challenged participants to consider whether the right narrator is telling the stories they share. “We seek out professionals and experts for polished stories and opinions,” she said. “But the people whose stories you are telling are the real experts. They are the polished communicators about their own experiences.”

Participants were encouraged to focus on empathy, respect, compassion, and inclusion as they pursue grant funding. “Surface culture is observable,” she said. “Farther down, shallow culture consists of our concepts, attitudes, and unspoken beliefs. Then in deep culture, you find the collective beliefs and norms that shape your world and the understanding of who you are.”

The grant professionals were urged to reach deeper than the surface. She counselled them to explore deep culture, to listen to and lift up the voices of the people they serve, and to ensure that people with lived experience are engaged in planning and evaluating the programs and in telling their own stories.

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Barbara Floersch is a grants expert, author of You Have a Hammer: Building Grant Proposals for Social Change and contributing writer to The NonProfit Times.