Catherine Ashton Shares How to Tell Impactful Stories When Writing Grants


If you want to stand out with your grant applications, you have to tell a good story.

Catherine Ashton is the founder of Giant Squid Group, helping start-up and small nonprofits in Austin, Texas, and Chicago, Illinois, to land donors, win grants and fund their works. With her coaching and support her clients, raise millions of dollars each year and have an incredible impact on their community.

She joins the show today to discuss ways to use storytelling and equitable language to create more impactful grant applications.

Catherines Top grant Writing Tips 

  1. Tell the story of the system you are working in and who you are looking to support. Be clear on why you’re needing to do that work and the specific situation that your organization is in. Answer the question of who you are, what you do and why? 
  2. Consider writing from a community-centred lens. This movement encourages people to think about approaching fundraising more equitably. One of the ways we can do that is using people-first language to bring humanity back into or writing. 
  3. Make sure you are answering the questions. Don’t copy and paste your answers, make sure you are really understanding what the application is asking of you. When thinking about your answers try to get to the root cause of your problem and avoid being too general in your answers. 

Our Favourite Quotes

(05:15) What's your why, what gets you out of bed every morning to do this work? This is not easy work, particularly if you're a grassroots organization and you probably have an elevator pitch about your work. But I don't really care. And honestly, funders might not really care. I want to know what's your why what drives you to make the world a better place and that's the story that should be told.

(11:58) You see the programmatic work, you see the budget work, you see the board work, and you get to synthesize it all into this is who we are. And this is how we talk. So even though grant writers tend to be in their little corner at our desks working hard, there is a lot of influence that we can have in terms of how we brand and position ourselves in our work.


Let's write more Impactful Grants with Katherine Aston.

Hi and welcome to Driven Fundraising Superheroes Podcast. I'm your host, Sabrina Sciscente, and as an innovator in nonprofit technology, our team is Driven is determined to help you unlock your true fundraising potential. We can help you with your donor, volunteer and member management, so make sure to give us a visit at to learn more.

Grant writing at its essence is good storytelling. You get one shot to make an impact in your grant application, so you have to make sure you're doing everything you can to stand out.

Luckily, we have Catherine Ashton joining the show today. She is on a mission to change the way nonprofits raise money. And as the founder of Giant Squid Group, Catherine works with start-up and small nonprofits in Austin, Texas, and Chicago, Illinois, to land donors, win grants and fund their works. With her coaching and support her clients, raise millions of dollars each year and have incredible impact on their community. So thank you so much, Catherine, for joining the show.

I'm so happy to be here. Thanks for having me, Sabrina.

So can you start by explaining how the Giant Squid Group came to be? How did you get started with this?

Absolutely. So giant Squid Group LLC is a social impact consulting agency, and we were founded to really support small and start-up nonprofits, grassroots nonprofits who had a great mission and a great vision and then went, oh, crap. How do I fundraise? And I always say no one starts a nonprofit or comes into the nonprofit world because they love asking people for money. We start because we have a mission and we want to make the world a better place. But fundraising is a big part of that.

So that's what led me to start the company. And today we work with clients in Canada and the US through grant writing, coaching. And we do everything through an intersectional, feminist and antiracist lens. So we're really focused on how the sector can create systemic change and really get our missions to be as exciting and dynamic and impactful as possible.

That's fantastic. The more that I dig into the industry as a whole. The more you start to see that even though it is centered around helping out the community, that there are still things within the sector that need to be ironed out. So I think it's really important that you're taking it from that perspective and making sure that all voices are being heard in your work.

Yeah, that's the goal. And it's hard work. I think for a lot of us to have to understand all of the different facets to go into being in the nonprofit sector, the good, the bad, the ugly. But it's an amazing sector with so much resiliency and creativity and just the ability to get things done. So I love that we are able to help the nonprofits that are really having the biggest impact on their communities just by helping them raise more money. 

And one of the ways that you do that is helping organizations with their grant application process. Their grant writing and grants can be such a great source of funding. But I know that a lot of organizations struggle with writing their grants with crafting the perfect story, and maybe they just don't have the capacity to really dive into it as they want to. Can you start by explaining the role that storytelling plays in grant writing? What are the key elements nonprofit should be looking for when crafting stories for their applications?

Absolutely. You're right. Grants are a huge source of funding, obviously, for a lot of nonprofit and probably the most misunderstood source of funding, particularly if you're just getting started. And we think it's this unlimited well of money, and you just say you need money and then grant or give it to you. And it's certainly more complex than that. But there's also a lot of really interesting challenges if you think about grant writing in terms of how you present your organization, how you talk about your work and how you really are shifting the narrative of we're going to give money to the needy, right.

I think that's sort of how a lot of us were raised with this idea of helping charity and give money to the needy towards the sector. Really looking at we're going to tackle the systemic changes, the systemic challenges rather that have gotten us to this place to begin with. And so if you're a writer, if you're a fundraiser, if you're a founder, I think the biggest way to write good grants to get money and to just have an impact is to tell the story of what are the systems that you're working with and who are you working to support?

How are you working to support them and just being really clear on the whole field in which you're working and not trying to just paint this really big picture of changing the world because we're all here to change the world. But if we all just write grants about how we're going to change the world with no meat to them, you're not going to get funded, and you're also not really saying anything. So be really honest about what you're doing, but also really dig into why you're needing to do that work.

And I always ask a lot of our partners, whether they're our coaching clients or some of our group cohorts or grant writing clients. What's your why, what gets you out of bed every morning to do this work? This is not easy work, particularly if you're a grassroots organization and you probably have an elevator pitch about your work. But I don't really care. And honestly, funders might not really care. I want to know what's your why what drives you to make the world a better place and that's the story that should be told.

So I guess the important thing is to really be specific, not be too general. It's easy to talk about the kind of surface level of your organization. But I guess the more you get into the day-to-day, the nitty-gritty, the more beneficial it could be with your application.

Absolutely. And I think anytime you're talking about fundraising as well, I always use examples when I'm teaching, say, take an animal welfare organization if you say you want to help animals, that's very vague. So I would need to know more. There's a lot of animals in the world. Are you an elephant rescue? I've been following this elephant rescue on TikTok with my four year old, and we're really into it. It's an elephant rescue in Thailand, and they've got this beautiful little baby elephant. Or are you a feral cat rescue here in my little town of Fluorville?

Those are two very different organizations that both have the same overarching mission of helping animals. Even if you're a cat rescue again, are you helping feral cats? Are you helping senior cats? I think there's rescues for specifically black cats. So within your work, who are you? What are you doing? And again, why are you doing it? And often you know why you're doing it. It's what gets you out of bed every day. You know, it in your core whether it's saving elephants, saving cats, doing cancer research, helping folks who are experiencing homelessness, but you need to be able to articulate why and then really paint a picture of what your work does and why you do that work within the ecosystem that you live in.

What challenges are you up against? What challenges are your clients up against? And what does a day in your work look like to make the world a better place? Because, again, animal welfare, saving animals is pretty vague. Saying that you go into poaching areas and airlift elephants out is suddenly painting a very vivid picture that I can understand.

Yeah. And it gives you exactly the idea of how that funding is going to contribute to what you do on a day-to-day basis. So I love that. That's the perfect example. And I'm a huge animal lover. So any animal example gets me interested immediately.

So when you are writing grants, community-centred fundraising has become really big. And having that community-centred approach really getting into the specifics can be so beneficial. So how can nonprofits make sure that they are coming at their grants from that lens? And how can we ensure that we are also being inclusive when involving the community and our stories?

Absolutely. And I love that you're creating space for the community-centric fundraising movement, the community-centric fundraising movement for folks who might just be discovering it is really this new in terms of formally organized in the last few years. But a deep desire to change the way that we fundraise to be more equitable. And so I strongly encourage everyone who's listening to this to go to their website and get involved. It's an incredible group of people doing incredible work, and I cannot take credit for any of it.

I am a community-centric fundraising fan girl, and I've really tried to learn and immerse myself in it, and that's definitely influenced how I write grants and how I teach grants. And a lot of it is that grant writing has challenges, right? We have to say grant writing has challenges. We have to address the funders questions. We have to work with our bosses. We have all of the constraints of deadlines and character counts, and often what funds are requesting. The way they ask the questions might not be what you want to say, but if you need money and we are working in a capitalist society where you need money to fund your nonprofit, which is why you're listening to this.

You have to answer the questions. So coming to it from a community-centred approach is really within the system of grants that we have. How can we start to influence the granting process with a little bit more of an equity lens? One of the ways I love to do that. And it's a simple shift that I really do think anyone can make is start to use more people-first language. And there's tons of really great resources out there on the Internet. And I'll make sure that Sabrina has some link in the show notes about people first language.

But again, like I kind of joked about growing up in the 80s and 90s, it was giving money to the needy with the Salvation Army, Santa Claus, who are the needy? That's identity-first language, where we're reducing people to their affliction or to their barriers. Right. So when you hear people say the homeless, the needy, ex-felons, at-risk kids, we're really painting people in a lens that is not who they are. Instead, if we use people-first language, we are upholding their humanity first and foremost and then acknowledging the systemic barriers they face.

So instead of saying someone is homeless, say someone who is experiencing homelessness or someone who's experiencing houselessness or someone who's living unsheltered. Of course, writing grants, we also have character counts. So this is easier said than done. But looking at your current grants and looking at the ways in which you talk about the people with whom you work or the animals or the system and really making sure that you're centering them and their humanity is so important.

But yeah, I think that is super important. The language that you use matters because the more that you refer to people is what they're lacking or what they need. It takes the humanity out of it. And I think especially when dealing with donors or people who are looking to fund you, it takes them out of the story. And it kind of other people. And so when we other people, we forgot that the other day people are people, and it makes you almost lose that sense of empathy and being able to put yourself into their shoes.

So yeah, I agree. I totally think the language is just as important as the story itself.

Absolutely. And hopefully that's a shift that most grant writers can make in their language. Again, knowing you have character counts and limitations. I know I had a boss years ago who has very strong opinions about words, and she might have not let this fly. And I might not have been able to do this. But depending on where you work, who you are and how you write, you might be able to start incorporating some more people first language into your grant writing. And then it's an organization. Grants are so great because you see all of it.

You see the programmatic work, you see the budget work, you see the board work, and you get to synthesize it all into this is who we are. And this is how we talk. So even though grant writers tend to be in their little corner at our desks working hard, there is a lot of influence that we can have in terms of how we brand and position ourselves in our work.

When you're working with a lot of organizations, because it's one thing to learn how to write a story. But then when you get into it, sometimes you forget. So when you are working with organizations or maybe reviewing applications or writing for other nonprofit, what is the one mistake, or maybe a few mistakes that you find many people are making when it comes to creating your proposals? Is there a consistent, I don't say, issue or suggestion you can give to organizations that can help them get a better idea of how to make their proposals better?

Absolutely. There are several, I think the first one the biggest one, if you take nothing else away from this is answer the questions. And again, we have the tension of having information from programs team and our executive director on our board. And we've said it one way, and we're under the gun. But the most common challenge I see is nonprofit trying to fit a square peg in a round hole when it comes to their grant applications. We've written it one way. We think our language is super good.

We listen to this podcast. It says people experiencing houselessness, and then the question is something else, but we just copy and paste our answer. And that's not going to get funded, even if it's a stupid question. Even if it's super redundant and they batted four different ways, you have to answer the questions. Otherwise, you're not really submitting the grant application. The other areas that I think always have a lot of room for growth, even with seasoned writers. And even with some of the grants I've written that I look back a year later, is does your statement of need or your case for support section really say why your work matters?

And again, that goes back to understanding and clearly addressing the systemic barriers or the cultural barriers or the root causes of the problem. Your problem is not that you need money. Your problem is not that there's an elephant they need saving and you can't get there. That's a you problem in the same way that my clients don't care that I need to pay my mortgage. We're working together. And as tempting as it can be to say, we need to hire people, we need cash. Covid was hard.

That's not a statement of need. What you need to talk about is whatever issue you're really addressing the root causes of homelessness in your community, the root causes of animal cruelty, whatever that is, and the data to back that up. And then how you're addressing that, that's the statement of need. And it can be very hard if you're just starting out and you're like, yeah, that's great. But we also need money. So finding that balance is a challenge. But I always come back to that. Your statement of need addresses the root causes that your mission exists for.

And similarly, with goals and objectives and evaluation. For those of us who came into nonprofit from a Liberal arts background, a humanities background, which is many of us, we hear qualitative and quantitative goals, and we freak out and run the other direction. I have an English degree. It took a long time for me to embrace that we could do data, nonprofit people. We can be data people. And so our evaluation sections, our goals and objectives sections are often pretty weak if we're just starting out. And really, when you look at that, you're just asking when you look at those sections, funders are asking, do you know where you're going and how are you going to get there?

And if you can't answer that, why are they going to give you money? So you're laying out a roadmap and it could be that we're going to save ten elephants this year. And how are we going to do that and really just bullet pointing that out? So if funder understands where their investment is going and the anticipated outcomes of that investment, and so that again, comes back to answering the questions, but just talking like a person and telling the fund or what you do in the way you do it is such a big step forward rather than really vague platitudes and really vague grantsounding, language that doesn't actually say where you're going.

Yeah, that matters so much. Going back to what you're talking about before you have to be specific and you have to paint a really clear picture because you only get that one shot right. Are there things that nonprofit can do? Maybe before they apply for the grant and then after is it work beyond just creating the perfect story. Writing the perfect grant. Are there other tips you can give them?

Such a wonderful question. And I'm so glad you asked it. Yes. Writing a grant is like, I don't know, 20% of the grants program, which is very frustrating if you're like. Wait, what? I thought I just had to write the grant. So the first thing I think that if you're just new to this is to make sure you're grant ready and we actually have a quiz on our website. Are you grant ready? But to make sure that you not only can write a grant but have all of the facets of being able to do that, do you have goals and objectives?

If you don't have organizational goals and objectives, you're not ready to grant. And that's okay. Just hit pause. So that grant readiness is really important. And then there's also the maturity of your fundraising Department, your fundraising initiatives. And I always tell people to reach out to the funder ahead of time. There's no magic bullet when it comes to fundraising and grant writing, but the closest I can give you is to call or email the funder ahead of time and just make sure that you align with their funding priorities, have a brief conversation and do that cultivation work.

Worst case, they're going to say, read the RFP or they're not going to answer. Best case, it's an opportunity for you to really make sure that you're positioning your work within their funding priorities, which can be vague. Right? You're looking at their website, you're trying to make sure you fit. And number one feedback I get is that well, one, that sounds terrifying because I'm a one. We don't use the phone. And two, we shouldn't call them. No, your program officers are there to help. So absolutely.

Call them. And then through after that report on what you do, keep a relationship with your funder. They are not big, scary monoliths behind the computer there to haunt you in any way. Funders are there to work with you in collaboration to achieve your mission? They're funding you because they see that your work aligns with what they want to see happen in the world. So you are in a partnership. And I think nonprofits getting comfortable picking up the phone and talking to funders and getting comfortable just talking to funders throughout the duration of the grant period.

And even after is such a powerful way to not just make your organization stand out, but to create sustainable, long-term funding relationships.

Exactly. And before we go today, I'd love for you to be able to share with our audience. How can they learn more about your work? How can they get in touch with you and access all these amazing resources that you have on your website?

Absolutely. Please visit We have tons of free and paid classes, workshops we have in-person classes. We have on-demand classes. So if you're like, I want to learn how to write better grants. We have a self-paced class to help you write a grant boilerplate, and we also have some great opportunities coming up in the next month or so for both grant writing workshops for free lunch and learn. So visit the website, check upcoming events and of course, feel free to send me an email.

Connect with me on LinkedIn. I always love talking to people and hear what people are doing.

Thank you again, Catherine, for joining me today. Like Catherine mentioned, you can get in touch with her and access all of our amazing resources, coaching classes and blog posts at, I've made sure to link that along with the other resources mentioned in the interview in the show notes. And if you want to stay updated on everything Driven and Fundraising Superheroes, you can give us a visit at There. You can learn more about us, but we do listen to past podcast episodes and sign up for our newsletter.

If you're interested in learning more, that is, we're or even find us. And as always, thank you so much for listening to the podcast and we'll see you next time on Fundraising Superheroes.

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Podcast Dec 3, 2021, 12:00 AM

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