Tell Better Stories with Data

If I ask you to donate $1,000 to help an underprivileged boy named Jayson graduate from high school, would you donate?  On the other hand, if I tell you that our country would save $18.5 billion if we increase the graduation rate of boys by just 5%¹, and my organization has  increased the graduation rate of boys in our community by 10% in just 5 years, would you now donate?

I was recently invited to talk with the Greater Detroit Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals about analytics for nonprofits – what it is, why do we want it, and how do we do it. We discussed fundraising and the kinds of information needed to best support nonprofit organizations.

The business of fundraising revolves around donors, and telling stories about the people served, the lives saved, the land/animals/children/water/communities protected. Most of the successful fund development people I know are great at telling a story. Usually, they talk about a child, maybe with photos.  When asked about using data, the people at the AFP meeting were all confident about their use of donor systems to track fund development and donors. One was justifiably proud in leading the pack by sending donor data out for analysis. (There is a lot of very helpful knowledge to be gained by analyzing your donor data – worth a try if you can do it!). None, though,  were able to say that they had sufficient information about the services their organizations provide, let alone anything they could use to tell their story — to achieve a real impact.

Setting aside today’s problem that many nonprofits have in answering simple questions like “How many families do we serve?” it is challenging to find organizations that can offer quantitative impact information. When you are telling a story, to really grab and keep someone’s attention, you need more than just explaining “how you helped Jayson graduate.”   You need to describe the lasting change you are making— for instance, how the entire school district has, over 5 years, moved from having only 55% of 3rd graders at reading level, to nearly 85%, and is still improving! Or you could illustrate how recycling volume has increased 11% and trash volume has decreased 8% over the past 3 years, and is steadily improving. (“Your donations have enabled us to reduce our community’s trash volume by 11% so far. More work is needed to reduce it by 50% in 10 years, and eliminate the need for the new landfill!”).

Here’s another example: “The Perry Preschool Project showed that children who attend preschool have a 44% higher high school graduation rate (65% vs. 45%)². Our work here is increasing the percentage of 4 year old children in the city attending preschool by 3-5% per year since we began, meaning more than 300 children already have a 44% higher likelihood of high school graduation”.

Tell your story in a truer, stronger, more compelling way by adding real data. Use information to boost your impact message. To do that, of course, you need access to your own data, perhaps supplemented by outside data and research.  So, what should you do? Start with your story — what is the message you want to convey?  What data do you need to amplify or authenticate it? Try to find it among the data your organization is already collecting, leverage good research and then push toward collecting more outcomes and impact metrics.

All your stories will be stronger and your message irresistible!


¹ Alliance for Excellent Education, 2013
² Significant Benefits: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 27, 1993.