Tips for Writing About Nonprofit Data
Updated: Nov 9
Most nonprofits need to turn their data into written information for supporters and decision making. Your annual report, grant proposals & grant reports, as well as documents for your board of directors will all include summaries and insights from the data you collect.
You’ll want to write about your data in a way that makes the most impact without leaving your readers bored or confused.
Here are 11 tips to help your nonprofit write about data clearly.
Do Some Pre-Work
Before you write a single sentence, you should do some pre-work. Depending on what you are creating, this could be a few minutes of work or it could take much longer.
You've probably already done a lot of this work for memos to your staff or board. If you're creating your first annual report or writing a proposal to a new foundation, then it's worthwhile to spend more time with it.
1.Define your goals
What do you want your audience to take away from the piece (i.e. grant proposal, annual report, quarterly dashboard update)?
It's much easier to figure out what to include and, importantly, what to exclude when you know your goals.
Do you want to:
show that your program is growing?
point out that success is getting harder or more expensive?
show that there is a lot of unmet demand for your services?
educate people, compel them to act, or inspire them?
You can focus on what matters the most, and save yourself lots of time, by defining your goals first.
2. List the key points to support each goal
You'll need supporting data to accomplish each goal. You could set a goal of educating people that "housing is super affordable in our community" without any support for that claim. But, few people will believe you.
For each goal, you need to list the key points, or evidence, that will support the goal.
If your goal is to show your program is effective and getting better, then you might list the following:
Provide data that compares your results to similar organizations in your state community or state
Show that your success rates are improving over time
Offer data to show how much better off your participants are when they exit your program compared to the start of the program.
Don't overwhelm people with evidence. Provide just enough to support the goal and move on.
Know Your Audience
Now that you know your goals and key points, you should think about the people with whom you are communicating. You know what you want to say. Your audience will shape how you say it.
Next up, we will examine our audience.
3. Define and profile your audience
Who are you writing for?
Your board of directors
Your closest and strongest donors
Someone who donated $10 last summer through some social media fundraising campaign set up by your sister for her birthday
A Mix of these
Those groups are really different, and that matters. They will have very different knowledge of your organization, your services, your expertise, your day-to-day challenges, any lots more.
Defining your audience lets you answer some key questions about them, especially:
How familiar are they with your organization and the topic(s) your writing about?
Do you need to review fundamental ideas and assumptions, or can you skip past that?
Imagine you are presenting your organization's work to reduce recidivism among formerly incarcerated youth. Do you need to define recidivism to your board of directors or explain reasons for it? Or, is it safe to assume they are knowledgeable? What if the audience is a group of high school students?
You will have a much clearer sense of what to include and exclude once you define your audience.
NOTE: There is a circular relationship between your audience and your goals & key points. Revisit your goals and key points after you have a clear picture of your audience. You might decide that some of your goals are not very relevant to your audience, or the key points are too complex or obscure.
Writing About and Presenting Data
We are finally ready to start writing.
Now that you know your goals, key points, and audience, you can get down to the business of writing that report, proposal, blog post, or memo to your team.
4.Define key terms and acronyms
This is part of knowing your audience. What key terms and jargon need to be defined, and which ones are assumed knowledge?
It rarely hurts to play it safe here. Defining an acronym at least once or showing how you calculate success rates can be beneficial to lots of people. Remember that you live and breathe your data, but most people – even some of your colleagues – don't. And, your board love your organization, but they don’t always remember what TEFAP or HMIS or IHE means.
Even if you are talking to someone who knows, like board members or a foundation that has supported you for years, make an effort to explain what key terms and acronyms mean. Maybe stick those in a footnote if you don't want them to be distracting.
5. Use statistical concepts that your audience understands
Some audiences will understand standard deviations, interquartile ranges, correlation coefficients, T-tests, or basically anything taught in stats 101, but many (probably most) will not.
How will you know what to include?
Mean and median are probably safe. Beyond that, you need to know your goals and your audience.
The safest approach is to avoid most statistical concepts unless: (a) they are absolutely necessary to support your goals or (b) you are confident your audience can easily understand them.
If you must use these terms, then follow them up with a “layman’s terms” version. For example, "A standard deviation is a way to measure how scattered (or variable) data is. When the standard deviation is larger, it means the data is more spread out (or dispersed). In this case, the standard deviation doubled, so that means...."
Of course, if your audience does understand those terms, and would benefit from them being presented, then use them.
6. Focus and simplify tables and charts
Your data tables need to include the data to support your key points and nothing more.
Tables and charts exist to support your key points, not to give the audience unfettered access to your data and all the variables you collect.
It is especially easy to overload tables with data because you can simply add more rows and more columns.
Resist this urge.
In addition, each table and chart should be as simple as you can possibly make it.
You could present 1 mega-table that supports all of your key points. In a few cases, that's best. In most cases, it's not.
Keep tables and charts small by focusing on a small number of related points.
If you want to make more points, then make more small tables and charts. Too much data is hard to read and a distraction from the points you need to make.
7. Explain the data in your tables and charts
You need to explain your tables and charts, not just plop them into a document and let them "speak for themselves". They don't speak for themselves. That's your job. Interpret the table for your audience, and connect the dots on their behalf.
Now, you might be thinking, "what's the point of creating a beautiful table if I just have to talk about it anyway?"
There are plenty of reasons you need to do both. Essentially, some people will scrutinize your charts and tables and many people in your audience won't do that. You want everyone to stay engaged so you can achieve your goals.
8. Tell people what you want them to take away from every table and chart
This overlaps with tip 7, but it’s worth stating in a different way.
Tell people what you want them to think.
Yes, this might sound bad. But many of us (me included) are, well, kind of lazy. It's a lot of work to pull key points out of your tables and charts, build an argument in my head, and arrive at the "right" conclusions.
Please do all of that for me. I might not like it and might not believe you. I might stop to scrutinize your tables and grumble about something. But, you are more likely to move me in the direction you want me to go by actually trying to push me in that direction.
9. Be Careful and Conservative In your Interpretations
You are telling people what you want them to think, so you need to be really careful how you interpret data. It’s your job to highlight interesting trends and key insights in support of your goals. But, don’t overdo it.
A 1% year-over-year increase is a “slight increase” not “skyrocketing demand”, and 51% approve vs 49% disapprove is not "overwhelming support".
Yes, this sounds obvious, but it's worth emphasizing. You will quickly lose your audience's trust when you sneak in a “friendly” or “biased” interpretation of data.
10.Give the “So What?”
Why should I care that demand for your services is increasing at 2% per year? Why should I care if rents have increased by an average of $100 per month?
You need to give your audience the "so what" rather than making them dig for it. Deliver the “so what” on a big purple velvet pillow with no ambiguity and no distractions.
The "so what" is the biggest reason people will keep reading, keep engaging, keep supporting.
Example "So What": Together, Tables 1, 2, and 3 indicate that our participants are having a harder time getting livable wages, and apartments are less affordable than ever. We expect our work to get harder in the future, and we will have to invest more resources into each person we serve. We will need more funding and more staff to continue to serve the same number of people next year.
There's no ambiguity here. This statement connects all the dots. The "so what?" is clear: "Things are getting harder, and we need more money to keep doing what we do."
Give your audience the "so what?" loud and clear; don't make them work for it.
11. Pick the right numbers to talk about
Your data can be presented in many ways, and picking the right numbers is important.
You can "go big" to blow your audience away with the large volume of work you do (e.g. we helped 1,000 people with interview clothes last year), or you can "go deep" to emphasize the impact you are having on people's lives (e.g. we helped 150 people get living wage jobs with benefits).
Knowing your audience is, once again, critical. Your annual gala crowd might want to hear the big numbers, while the foundation focused on opportunity youth might just care about outcomes.
A Few Don’ts When Writing About Data
In the immortal words of Frank Costanza: I got a lot of problems with you people, now you’re gonna hear about it.
Writing About Data and Statistics
Don’t talk about odds or odds ratios... they are confusing and (gambling aside) are not part of day-to-day life for most people.
Don’t dive deeply into statistical methods unless your audience needs to see that info.
If you feel compelled to do this, but are writing for a general audience, then stick it in an Appendix. Most people will never look at an Appendix, but a few might appreciate it.
NOTE: Remember to define & know your audience. Sometimes, you just have to talk about odds. E.G. "The odds of me talking about odds next week are oddly high."
General Writing Tips
Don’t publish your first draft. You can do better.
Don’t forget to seek out and incorporate feedback. You are perfect, now change everything.
Don’t use passive voice. Data is hard enough for people to grasp, and passive voice makes things even more roundabout and confusing.
Active Voice: We served 500 families last year.
Passive Voice: 500 families were served by the organization last year.
Woah there partner...why use 9 words when 6 will do? What organization are you talking about, anyway?
Don’t be afraid to write in the first person. “I” and “We” statements help you write in active voice rather than passive voice.
I know your 7th grade writing teacher said not to use “I” and “We” statements, but they were wrong. More than one person with a PhD told me the same thing in grad school, and they were also wrong. Sorry, not sorry.
Finally, don’t forget to buy a copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. An awesome, pocket-size book about writing that’s packed with helpful examples.
Learn More About Nonprofit Data Management
This post is part of our nonprofit data bootcamp series. Check out the complete list of nonprofit data bootcamp topics with links to other published posts.
Please email us if you want to talk about the data your nonprofit collects. We love to talk about data challenges, even if countbubble isn't a good fit for you.
Reporting your impact is hard when you’re juggling spreadsheets. countbubble makes it easy so you can focus on your mission.
Founder, CountBubble, LLC