In the past few years, I’ve interviewed dozens of donors and other nonprofit stakeholders, and when asked what motivates them to support an organization, an overarching theme comes through:
They want to know that the organization is having an impact. And they like to see evidence.
That puts the burden on organizations to measure the progress they’re making. If they have a stated mission and established goals, how well are they fulfilling them? According to the most recent “State of Evaluation” report, 85% of nonprofit organizations agree that they need evaluation to know their approach is working compared to 68% of nonprofits in 2012.
It also illustrates the need to communicate that impact to the supporters who make it possible. They need to see a clear and engaging link between an organization’s mission and its outcomes to inspire them to take action, whether that is to donate, volunteer, promote awareness of your work or become a partner.
There are three common approaches for this kind of outreach:
- Program updates in narrative form: A simple overview of recent activity.
- Personal storytelling: Communicate your success through individuals who have benefited from the programs.
- Big picture: How your organization has changed policy or made large systemic changes.
But choosing your words is just the beginning. When it comes to adding impact to your results, numbers and images play a huge role. The fact is, humans crave visuals.
Demonstrating an organization’s success through stats and graphics is a powerful communications tool that can complement those same personal stories and narrative updates to make a stronger case.
Showing numbers in a memorable way also lets organizations make complex ideas simple to understand. If goals and missions are aspirational, numbers make them real. If the problem is solvable, a number can communicate the accomplishment to the people who support the organization — and want to share its success.
But this is assuming your evaluation is accurate, impactful and supportable.
If you’re currently not evaluating your effectiveness, there are several tools and resources to help you begin.
Here are some questions you can ask to guide you through the process of charting your impact. You can simply choose to illustrate how many people you’ve served through your programs, how many members you have, volunteers you manage, animals you’ve saved or other measurable metric that fits your mission. Any growth you can show is an achievement. Any quantitative goal can be graphically illustrated for impact.
If you are doing evaluation and are data-driven, you should always be thinking of ways to take that rich data and translate it into something that quickly highlights your best results:
- Pick three data points to track and consistently update to show your impact. People are drawn to a three-part structure. It’s how our brains like to work — birth, life, death/morning, noon, night/beginning, middle, end. Show these numbers prominently on your website, annual reports, email updates, social media and other channels.
- Be careful with your data. Numbers shouldn’t bend the truth, and you want to be sure you can back up any numbers with evidence.
- Show numbers in meaningful context. For example, a nonprofit that helps first-generation students graduate from college could state that 90% of their students graduate college within five years. Impressive, but that doesn’t explain how their program is making a difference. But coupled with the national average for similar students, it suddenly becomes more impactful: 90% of our students graduate college within five years, three times the national average.
- Help your numbers tell a better story. Don’t default to percentages if you can make the math more powerful. For example, if your organization helped reduce the population of teen smokers from 10% to 5%, you didn’t lower the number by 5% — you cut teen smoking in half.
- Invest in data visualization. Graphics can be powerful storytellers and an invaluable ally against short attention spans. Be consistent in how you show information. Use color strategically, and be consistent there, too. Infographics and animated graphics can be memorable and are more likely to be shared on social media. This animated graphic about U.S. gun deaths is a great example.
Of course, what separates nonprofits from most for-profit ventures is the very nature of their mission — humanitarian motives that don’t always answer to bottom-line numbers. But that makes measuring success even more important. The people who help fuel your mission want to know they’re having an impact. Showing them a compelling result can make all the difference in the world.
Leeann Alameda has more than 20 years of experience in directing and implementing best practices in marketing, branding, communications and advertising in both the private and nonprofit sectors. She is the founder and principal consultant of Alameda Marketing Solutions, which provides marketing strategy and branding services for nonprofits, foundations and mission-driven businesses.