Non-Profits: Use Data to Power Your Story

There are a lot of ways to tell a successful story about your organization and communicate your core message to a broad audience.

For example, your mission statement and core values are critical components of your elevator pitch. The people you serve, the programs you provide, and the staff and volunteers who help you get there combine to form a collective identity for your organization comprised of your stakeholders’ identities and goals. Over the course of running your organization you’ve probably compiled a list of success stories worth sharing. You can also describe your specific activities or services to anyone who wants to go into detail.

But there’s no better way to get your message across in a powerful, compelling, and universal fashion than with data.

Data motivates donors and sponsors, drives smarter decisions, engages your staff, and helps you tell the most powerful story about who you are.

What outcomes have you delivered to the community you serve? What doors have you opened for people that were previously closed? What specific improvement have you made to the environment, or to culture, or to the knowledge available in the world?

The answers to these questions — the simple facts of your organization’s achievements — are valuable data points which can’t be argued. Using this data to sell your story is the focus of this article.

Data Spices Up Your (Organization’s) Stories

Anecdotes are an easy and immediate way for us to form connections to other people. When I’m sitting at the dinner table, relating my day, I don’t typically regale my friends and family with facts and figures about the percentage of my work tasks that I completed or how many minutes I shaved off of a task. I select a few vignettes that probably only took up a few minutes of my overall day and encapsulate the whole mood of the day with these examples.

Similarly, anecdotes are effectively used by non-profits to personalize the organization and allow everyone to connect to its mission. There’s a key difference, though, between your organization’s anecdotes and what you’d share around the dinner table.

Data can make these anecdotes much more powerful!

Your organization, whether delivering individual services or providing a broader social good, can improve its stories with the power of data.

Personal Success Anecdotes

Consider the following (hypothetical) success story:

A family crisis sent Jerry into two years of homelessness and unemployment. Thanks to our program he got a job, an apartment, and re-connected with his family.

This story is a compelling appeal to the emotion of the reader. Now spice it up with some data!

  • We made Jerry’s story possible. Every month we create this possibility for 212 other people.
  • 87% of the people we engaged in 2016 have stories just like Jerry’s.
  • We were able to do this thanks to the contributions of four monthly donors who each contributed only $49/month

Selling Broader Outreach

Your organization may not focus on outreach and services delivered to individuals, but rather on broadly-targeted community service.

Success stories or other anecdotes can still work for your organization, especially if you can connect them to your (or other) broader data-sets! Think about this example:

At today’s cleanup one of our volunteers found a duckling with its beak stuck in a plastic scrap. The volunteer carefully removed the scrap, and the famished duckling immediately began foraging in the grass!
Our organization removes an average 250 lbs of garbage like that plastic scrap each week across 120 acres of county park lands.

Or this one:

After our concert in the park last week a teenager approached us and shared that she’d been coming to our free summer concerts for the last three years. This inspired her to learn to play the flute and she wanted to tell us she’d just gotten a scholarship to study music at university.
Each summer we put on 5 concerts with an average of 475 children, teens, and young adults in attendance. We derive great satisfaction from knowing that our work helps inspire thousands of youth just like her every year!

Even though these services provide social good indirectly or in “bulk,” personal anecdotes or individual samples of the good produced can be woven into the whole service. Provide the relevant data and let the reader extrapolate from there!

What Compelling, Data-Driven Stories Achieve

Working in the not-for-profit world requires sacrifices. Paid staff forgo a higher wage than what they’d earn in the private sector in exchange for more personal meaning from their work. Volunteers sacrifice their time and energy to help your organization achieve its goals. Donors sacrifice their money to achieve a social good.

Very few non-profits are an entirely solo enterprise, and every contributor plays a different part.

Data-driven stories help each of these stakeholders remain engaged and increase the effectiveness of the outreach you do to potential new contributors.

Within your Organization

Data-driven stories illustrate the broad impacts that your work is having on the world to everyone who sacrifices on behalf of your organization. Your HR manager or board member or even, in some cases, volunteers may not have immediate access to the “payoff” of seeing the good that their contribution has accomplished.

Data-based storytelling also enforces, to some degree, a sense of consistency and continuity within your organization, tied to the specific descriptive outcomes you’re working towards.

Collecting good data requires many measurements of the same thing over time. This can help guard you against hopping haphazardly onto the latest trend until you’ve been able to measure whether it will help you achieve your objectives and how it fits into your data. If you decide on adopting a change, the continuity and the transparency afforded by the data will keep your contributors engaged through changes in direction.

Overall, the data you collect allows your contributors to connect their work with the good that’s done in a meaningful, measurable way. You can motivate them by showing how an extra effort on their part achieved a specific goal. You can illustrate this goal with a specific anecdote or set of anecdotes. Everyone gets to share in the good you’ve done, even if they’re not on the front lines of your organization’s work.

To the Outside World

Your organization presents a multifaceted identity to the outside world. People who aren’t in direct contact with you in some capacity are going to get most of their information from the stories you tell and how you tell them, and your success stories are a powerful way to connect with people.

Marrying your anecdotes with data achieves the following impacts beyond your organization:

  • Lets you connect with “left-brain” people, such as those who are likely to control a corporate checkbook
  • Keeps your stories “fresh” — maybe you have a great anecdote from a few years ago; you can keep updating the statistics to keep it relevant
  • Allows potential contributors to connect their efforts or contribution to specific achievements and outcomes
  • Facilitates adding immediacy to your call-to-action (We had to turn away 15 people this month — why not contribute so that together we can make it 0?)

Next Steps

If you’re not collecting data yet, you should start! Likewise, your organization should centralize and maintain a set of anecdotes that you believe best reflects the work you do and the impact it has (in fact, a broad organizational library or wiki is not a bad idea generally).

You’re going to be able to achieve the most if you crowd-source some of the work. You should also create and document a process for staff and volunteers to submit anecdotes to your collection. You can make it part of your routine status reports, a round-table item at a monthly staff meeting, a volunteer survey, etc.

Once you have a body of anecdotes to choose from, and data sets to work with, you can begin identifying which data most effectively expounds upon the point of the anecdote. Don’t forget to time-box the data (i.e. as of January 2016, or between 1/1/2017 and 2/28/2017, etc.) and include a footnote on how the data was obtained so that someone coming after you can update it if necessary. Include all of this information alongside the anecdote in your library.

If you’re looking for more help getting started, visit the Peach Pie Apps Workshop and get in touch! We can provide consulting services to help get your efforts of the ground, and we’re always working on better data solutions and services for organizations as well.


Jonathan majored in physics at Stanford University and has spent over 10 years working in information systems architecture, data-driven business process improvement, and organizational management. He is an Assistant Director of Research Information Systems at UCLA and also the founder of Peach Pie Apps Workshop, a company that focuses on building data solutions for non-profits and small businesses.

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