Picking the Right Number to Tell Your Nonprofit's Story: Go Big or Go Deep?
Updated: Nov 9
Our donation could pay for daycare for 20 toddlers or it could pay for tutoring for 200 middle-schoolers. We’ll have a much bigger impact if we support tutoring because daycare only helps 20 kids
That’s incredible! Your generosity will help so many children!
Does this sound familiar? Exchanges like this happen all the time in the nonprofit world. I’ve experienced something similar myself.
Is there anything wrong with the donor’s decision? Nope. They are contributing to a program that's needed, and a large number of children could benefit. But, they are clearly compelled by the big number in the tutoring program.
In this post, we share some ways to think about collecting and using the right nonprofit metrics so you can tell your nonprofit's story in a powerful, accessible way. Hint: Sometimes you need to go big and sometimes you need to go deep.
This seems like a simple trick, because it is. Compare these two statements:
Option A: “Our pantry provided nearly 22,000 meals last year”
Option B: “Our pantry provided enough food to feed 5 families last year”
(calculated by 5 families X 4 members per family X 3 daily meals X 365 days = 21,900 meals).
They describe the same service delivery in very different ways. Which statement would you put on your website, newsletter, annual report, social media, pleas for more funds, etc? I’d pick the first one every single time.
Why Go Big Here?
Feeding a single family a year’s worth of food is a vague concept, so it’s hard for me to make sense of that.
Even if I wanted to make sense of it, I’m not likely to do the math required to calculate the number of meals served (see above)
A “meal” is a concept we can all understand, and 22,000 of them sounds like a lot.
Feeding 5 families isn’t very inspiring. My immediate reaction would likely be something like “is this your first year running a food pantry?” - which is entirely unfair.
Feeding programs often express their results in terms of meals or pounds of food, so it makes sense to follow that convention.
You would know that feeding 5 families a year for 3 meals a day would be a huge accomplishment, and it would have numerous benefits for those families. You can also tell that story in a big way. This doesn’t minimize the work. It maximizes it for the right audience.
Generally, go big when:
You have a meaningful concept (meals, shoes, interviews, etc) that people can grasp without much effort, and the alternative is vague.
When the output itself is the primary goal of the program. E.G. A food pantry is providing supplemental meals (an output), but it’s probably not eliminating food insecurity (an outcome) in your community.
When going deep doesn’t reflect the importance or scale of the work.
There's an existing convention for reporting results that people already understand. As noted, we often describe feeding programs in terms of meals or pounds of food.
When you think your audience will be more compelled by going big, and doing so will not negatively impact the quality and focus of your work.
Big numbers are great, but as you know they do not tell the whole story. Sometimes you need to go deep.
Your organization probably does not exist solely to produce big numbers. Yes, I know I just said to find and share the big number! However, we’d be hard pressed to find an organization with a mission statement that reads: To produce lots of outputs with little discernible improvement to children, families, or the community. Your organization exists to make the world a little better, and going deep is often the best way to demonstrate your impact.
How do we go deep, anyway?
Going deep means we focus on the larger accomplishments of a program that reflect meaningful improvements in people's lives or the community but are fewer in number. When we go deep, we focus on the outcomes that directly tie to the core purpose of our organization.
For example, a workforce development program might have 500 coaching sessions with 50 families. Sure, 500 sessions is much bigger than 50 families, but it’s also not very meaningful by itself. The obvious next question is “so what?”
Going deep means we answer the “so what?” by focusing on the number of jobs obtained, wage increases, and the number of participants that achieve financial stability. Each of those metrics will be much lower than 500. However, they each give us a reason to care about the work.
Going deep helps our audience understand how we are transforming lives or communities through our work in a way that resonates with them. While big numbers sometimes tell the best story, going deep is often required to demonstrate how our programs matter.
Obviously, when we go deep, we don't have that bright, shiny big number to throw around. When we go deep, we have to make sure that showing the impact of our work is more important that showing the volume of our work.
Generally, go deep when:
The outcome(s) are the purpose of the work, not the outputs that lead up to those outcomes. Ex: Obtaining stable housing or living wage jobs are your outcomes, not coaching sessions and resumes completed.
When your outcomes are meaningful or can be described in a way that’s meaningful. Can you easily describe what stable and unstable housing means? Can you show a picture (literally) of what clean and polluted sections of a river look like?
When you have to because your funders are focused on outcomes, not outputs.
Circling Back to Our Generous Donor
Our donation could pay for daycare for 10 toddlers or it could pay for tutoring for 200 middle-schoolers. We’ll have a much bigger impact if we support tutoring because daycare only helps 10 kids
That's amazing, but before we finalize this, I wanted to show you how these programs affect children. A lot of research shows that high quality daycare increases a child’s chances of going to college by XX%. We know you care a lot about college attendance, so we wanted to make sure you saw that before you decide. Tutoring can be helpful as well, but we aren’t as confident about how it impacts college attendance.
Hmm... that might change things...I’ll think more and let you know tomorrow.
Counting the Right Things
When thinking about data collection and assessing your programs, you want to be prepared to share your data in a variety of ways. It is important to have a multi-pronged approach to data collection because you might have to change your focus, going big vs going deep, depending on your audience. In a future post, we will share some tips on how to create a multi-pronged data collection strategy so you have the tools at your fingertips to tell your story in a big way or a deep way, or both.
Reporting your impact is hard when you’re juggling spreadsheets. countbubble makes it easy so you can focus on your mission.
Founder, CountBubble, LLC