Nonprofits Metrics are Important, but Remember to Tell Stories
Updated: Nov 9
Maybe you’ve been here before - You’re at the annual gala, 300+ people are in a large ballroom in their nice suits and sparkly dresses. Cocktail hour was fun. You had a couple of drinks and an excellent bacon wrapped scallop. At dinner, everyone is eating their chicken piccata or NY strip steak (or a raw onion bomb called quinoa salad if you happen to be vegetarian), and a video appears on a giant projector screen:
When we met Paul, he was homeless and felt hopeless. He lost his job a few months ago because of an untreated health condition, his children had to move in with his sister, and he lost his car because he couldn’t afford insurance anymore. Paul was desperate to get his children back and to get back on his feet. We worked with Paul on a new resume, we got him some interview clothes, and we helped Paul with his personal pitch.
Today, Paul has a job with benefits, a safe apartment, and his children are back home.
Oh, and his daughter, well, she got those PJ Mask pajamas she always wanted.
Of course, I completely made up that story. Despite that, when I read the last line about the child getting their pajamas, I feel things. My brain instantly pictures a joyful child wearing those pajamas. It’s such a simple wish to fulfill, and I think that’s why it gets to me even more.
Why Tell A Story?
You need your audience to pay attention to what you have to say. That’s hard to do with countless others waving their hands and yelling “look at me” through social media, TV, print, and all of the other places we are inundated with information.
Why should I care about your cause, your needs, your request for support? Take a number.
We tell a story because we can use it to get and keep our audience’s attention. Once we have that attention, we can use a great story to convey our message. A story moves us into the life and journey of a participant. A story that includes characters we can connect with and emotions that we might have felt (fear, shame, joy) helps us start to experience that story in our own way.
We can use stories to create a more meaningful connection with donors because stories allow us to engage with other people in ways that numbers can’t. What affects you more - Paul’s story, or hearing that the program helped 50 families achieve stability last year? Both matter, but knowing that the program helps 50 families informs us while hearing Paul’s story moves us.
Stories can cut through questions and doubts by helping our audience set them aside for a moment so they can simply engage. In a way, stories make those questions irrelevant because our audience can feel that important work is being done.
Stories Work Where Number Can’t
Can’t I just blow them away with big numbers?
You can try that. But, I wouldn’t recommend it.
We’ve talked a lot about the social services data you should collect, how to collect service delivery data, and how to use data for the greatest impact. Your nonprofit probably spends a lot of resources collecting outputs and outcomes, tracking goals, enrolling and exiting participants. Data collection is clearly important. Your donors and supporters want to see that their support is put to work toward your mission, and the data you track can help you demonstrate that their support matters.
However, those metrics only take us so far because they can’t connect us as humans to the importance of your work. It’s impossible for us to look behind those numbers to understand how you are touching people’s lives or changing your community. When we report that 50 families achieved stability last year, our audience sees our work from a very distant vantage point. With no names, faces, ages, or context, our audience sees only shadows and outlines of what we’re really doing.
When you only give the numbers, your audience can’t connect with your work, they can’t feel how important it is, and they don’t experience any emotions when they receive your message. What does “stability” even mean? How does instability affect people? Did these 50 families really need support?
Stories come in by filling in those crucial details. They make just one or two of those “numbers” into real people (or dogs or trees or something else), and make them come to life. They allow your audience to experience emotions and connect with your work in a more human way.
Where to use stories
Storytelling is flexible.
Stories don’t have to be long to be effective. We described why we started countbubble in about 160 words - less than 1 minute of attention for a slower reader like me. Stories don't require Hollywood-level drama either, they just need to have an opening that lets your audience experience something themselves. The most emotionally compelling part of Paul's story is about pajamas.
Thanks to this flexibility, you can use stories on your website, annual reports, galas, and anywhere where you want to capture attention and keep it so you can deliver a message effectively. Use stories when you want to get attention and move your audience to act. Do you need donations for a new building, volunteers to paint a school, care packages to veterans? A story can help you get more of what you need.
If you want to learn to tell stories, Stories that Stick by Kindra Hall is a good place to start. The book is easy to read and is full of practical advice...and good stories! Many of the ideas in this post were informed by the book.
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Founder, CountBubble, LLC