PSGA Ken's Corner

Observations and advice on grant writing from the other side of the desk

How and Why or Why and How

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I’m finishing Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens, that I learned about from Bill Gates’ Gates Notes. Bill Gates’ review of the book is titled “How Did Humans Smart.”
One paragraph in the book caught my attention:

“What is the difference between describing ‘how’ and explaining ‘why’? To describe ‘how’ means to reconstruct the series of specific events that led from one point to another. To explain ‘why’ means to find the causal connections that account for the occurrence of this particular series of events to the exclusion of all others.”

As a person who reads grant requests every working day, I’m always looking for the ‘Why’ in the request. That’s the information that is both interesting and compelling to the decision-makers at a funder. And even though program officers read your LOIs and grant narratives first, they judge those requests based upon how interesting and compelling they think the request will be to the decision-makers.

Explaining ‘Why’ also builds the case for the specific steps you want to take, the ‘How’. I’ll paraphrase the paragraph in the context that applies to a grantwriter.

“Describing ‘how’ means describing the series of specific events that your organization plans to take to move from one point to another. Explaining ‘why’ means explaining the causal connections motivating your organization to pursue that particular series of events rather than other options.”

Which approach has the potential to be the most compelling? Think about it this way. Describing what you plan to do with a grant often raises the question why in the reader’s mind. For example, a line or two in your request for an after-school program describes how there will be food served each afternoon. A reader who doesn’t already know your community or who isn’t familiar with after-school programs wonder: “Food; why do they need to feed the kids?”

But if you explain your community, the challenges young people face, you show the reader (funder) how an after-school snack gets some of those kids who are iffy about coming to your program in the door. And then, how once a kid comes through the door, how you engage them and turn that engagement into after-school homework help.

Your goal when writing an LOI or the narrative of a grant request is to explain the ‘Why’ so that the ‘How’ seems inevitable. Yes, grant money often buys the ‘How’, but the reason most funders make grants is because they understand and care about changing the ‘Why’.


Author: Ken Ristine

Over 40 years experience in the nonprofit sector; Senior Program Officer for a Pacific Northwest family foundation. Co-author with Goodwin Deacon of the recently published Grantsmanship for the Genius.

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