Do Storytelling and Data Have Chemistry in Your Fundraising World?

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Nonprofit storytelling is a very hot topic lately, although it is hardly a new practice for our sector. But how does storytelling, which appeals to the heart and the imagination, blend with the stringent measurement requirements that so many institutional funders now insist upon? Is there a mixture that works to engage both donors and supporters for the long haul?

For decades, organizations and agencies have used compelling, and at times heartbreaking, stories to raise funds for their cause. Growing up, I remember vividly the commercials for UNICEF and those for the Christian Children’s Fund, where Sally Struthers compared the costs of feeding a malnourished child to buying a cup of coffee or a pack of gum. Using stories to raise support or awareness is a tried-and-true approach, but the forum in which it occurs has changed, as has the need for truly compelling stories.

For better or worse, social media provides us with uninterrupted access to an expansive array of stories and organizational information. Given the proliferation of nonprofit organizations, as well as the significant number of humanitarian and environmental crises on an increasingly local level, competition for nonprofit followers and donors has increased dramatically. Resources are limited, and so is the potential pool of supporters, since people are pulled in multiple directions when situations seem dire on a variety of fronts: melting ice caps, dying polar bears, Superstorm Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombings. That doesn’t even begin to capture issues like childhood obesity, walks for cancer or AIDS, and unprecedented global famines. The list of issues is immense, so people’s bandwidth for support is constrained. Broadening an organization’s circle of supporters depends on its capacity to make a compelling case not just to individual donors, but also to the funders on which it depends.

Storytelling is, itself, an art. It’s the act of highlighting a simple occurrence, statement, or activity and using it to represent something with greater significance. The goal for nonprofit storytelling is to capture a transformative incident that represents the organization’s impact on an individual or issue, and then use that specific case to highlight the group’s broader impact. In so doing, the organization seeks to either expand its base of supporters for a specific campaign, raise funds to foster more financial support and thus the continuation of said efforts, or to demonstrate to funders that the money provided has achieved the desired impact. In this case, while the individual story is noteworthy, it’s more meaningful and significant as a display of what can be achieved with sufficient resources, whether human or financial.

By offering supporting data, organizations demonstrate their capacity to replicate an individual story on a broader level with others in their target audience, whatever it may be. In essence, the data represent the pool of achievability through the specific activity or event that took place: how many more lives the group can touch, polar bears it can save, or dollars in storm damage it can help prevent. Without offering additional numbers or metrics, funders and supporters remind themselves of the old adage for investing: “Past performance is no indication of future success.” Without describing a model for how an outcome was achieved, how will people know that it can be done again?

Stories do have limits. In this day and age, there is no shortage of events pulling on people’s heartstrings. There is a reason why reporters share the stories of individuals affected by a particular disaster. They’ll speak to one family whose house was destroyed by a hurricane or tornado, and then present panoramic footage of the disaster and devastation that occurred around them. In so doing, they demonstrate the scope of the need.

Clearly, many organizations struggle to find the time or resources to share their stories. Many also lack tools for collecting data or measuring their impact. Unfortunately, as competition for scarce resources increases, the choice of whether or not to tell a story and collect basic organizational data will no longer be optional. Personally, I applaud funders who are imposing stricter evaluation requirements. I want organizations to be more accountable for the work they do or funds they receive. As someone who has written hundreds of grants thus far in my career, I cannot count the number of times that I have been asked to create meaningless evaluation plans for organizations with no history or capacity to assess their work. Even in my efforts to make these plans as simple and achievable as possible, I am certain that in the majority of cases, no effort was made to follow through on what was proposed.

Of course, therein lies another problem: Those individuals tasked with telling stories are typically not those who deal with organizational or program data. For most organizations, where a divide exists between those who use data and those who avoid it, including data in storytelling is indeed a complicated endeavor. Recognizing this entrenched divide, I view storytelling as a unique opportunity for organizations to work through data aversion, bringing together staff with different roles in a manner that fosters increased understanding and collaboration.

NPQ and I would love to hear how you have bridged this divide between story and measurable outcomes—or, on the other hand, if you have completely left behind one to do the other.

  • Dave Kramer

    Jinna, thanks so much. It’s been awesome to have you involved with EcoLogic in the past, and this post could not have been more timely! I am certainly making an effort to use the advice you’ve given us, but it hasn’t been a fast process, for sure. Your words serve as a stark reminder of the need to get on it!! A colleague of mine just recently sent this, which she found out about via her participation in the Kinship Conservation Fellows program: See Change Evaluation focuses on what they call “story science.” I particularly like the following piece from their website: “Storytelling in the social sector is misused. The plural of anecdote is not data. But it can be. Serious change agents rightly question the validity and value of one-off emotional appeals designed for fundraising. But stories that are systematically collected, thoughtfully analyzed, and critically edited are the most powerful tools for learning available in the social sector.” – Dave Kramer, Sr. Manager for Impact, Learning, and Innovation (my role here as of June 2013 at

  • David Hartstein

    Excellent post Jinna. All too often it seems effective storytelling and use of data are seen as being at odds with one another. In fact, the two can (and should) work together to make your overall message more compelling and ultimately drive more website visitors to take action.

    We wrote a related article on this very topic. I’d love your thoughts – Using Nonprofit Data to Improve Your Storytelling (

    Thanks so much for sharing your post. We’ll be sharing via Twitter (@wiredimpact) shortly.

  • Demie Stathoplos

    Pathways to Wellness, Inc. provides free and low cost acupuncture to vulnerable populations, and its “share the care” model of business allows regular fee paying customers to help support our mission. We’ve collected data and reported on it to our state Dept. of Public Health for 23 years – on the impact acupuncture has had on the ability of clients living with HIV/AIDS to maintain their anti-retroviral medications, as well as on other symptoms those clients experience. One of our “stories” is from a long time client –

    “When I first walked in the Pathways clinic, I felt I was transported to a safe place where physical and spiritual healing could happen. Immediately I felt unconditional positive regard from the staff and the caring, curative hands of the acupuncturists. I was disabled by peripheral neuropathy brought about as a side effect of HIV medications. The pain went from both knees to the bottom of my feet. I had difficulties walking and required a cane to couch the pain. Within the first 10 months of treatments I dropped the cane and started to walk faster and with little pain. Over the past ten years, Pathways has given me control over my medication side effects. I have received this whole body and mind care with love and care and free of charge. Pathways is important to me because it offers a life support other clinics cannot match. Thank you.- L.T.”

  • Dennis Fischman

    Jinna, what a well-balanced look at the marriage of storytelling and data! “Stories do have limits.” Yes, it’s important to remember that. But it’s also important to remember what Aristotle said more than 2000 years ago, that the measures we use cannot be more precise than the things we are measuring. Data have their limits, too, and one of them is that for most people, data become overwhelming very quickly.

    It takes good preparation to find the story that makes your point (as I wrote at It takes stepping back and looking at things from your audience’s point of view to seize the telling data or even data point that will help your audience “get it” about your cause.

    Have you ever worked for an organization that deliberately assigned data people and storytellers to work together? What was the result?

  • Jinna Halperin

    Dave, thanks for your comment. I love the quote that you shared. I’m familiar with See Change and very interested in their work. I know it’s not a fast process, but I’m certain that you will get there.

  • Jinna Halperin

    David, I really appreciate your comment. I hadn’t heard of your group before, but your site offers some fantastic resources!

    I really enjoyed your article on nonprofit data and storytelling. If I had read it earlier, then I might not have written my piece. I guess that speaks to another key issue, which is of course, dissemination.

    On another topic, I know a lot of organization that would benefit from your article: Should Your Nonprofit Start a Blog? – Benefits and Drawbacks ( The blogosphere is a crowded place!

  • Terrence McNally

    Jinna,I second your call to combine stories with data as well as your appreciation of the challenges this presents.

    In my work with organizations — primarily non-profits, foundations, and public agencies — I advocate the use of what I call “story packages.”

    Stories are a unique resource to build credibility with new audiences, and to deepen engagement and trust with those already on board. But good stories are not enough. The strongest communication for many purposes is the combination of data and story. Data is crucial in presenting challenges, tracking accomplishments, and demonstrating value. If you come up with a great piece of data, find a compelling human story to illustrate it. And if you learn about a great story in one of your programs, link that story to a great piece of data, to demonstrate that it’s not just an isolated “feel good” anecdote.

    I’ve been getting some pushback on this linking of story and data lately. I’ve heard more than one person in the past year warn against combining story and data. They note a study (Carnegie Mellon University, 2007, Deborah Small, George Lowenstein and Paul Slovic) in which story proved more persuasive than story-plus-data. I think the key here is the specific data they offered.

    Using data poorly is as bad as telling a weak story or telling a good story poorly. You’ve got to be selective. Use only the strongest pieces of data – most likely to be remembered and repeated, and avoid any that are likely to make the audience feel overwhelmed. As a rule, I recommend one great piece of data – memorable, surprising, easy to understand, maybe even able to generate a picture in the mind’s eye.

    Since you communicate in order to make things happen, whenever possible add a third element. Link a story and a piece of data to a call to action. When your purpose is advocacy, link story and data to a policy recommendation. When it’s fundraising, link story and data to your “ask.”

    Develop your ability to deliver compelling “story packages”: A powerful story plus a great piece of data plus a clear call to action – told so that the connections between them are clear and they build on each other in a way that moves people.

    McNally:MessageMatters /

  • David Hartstein

    Thanks so much for your kind words Jinna. I really appreciate it.

    Again I really enjoyed your post! Thanks for sharing it.

  • Leigh Ann Jacobson, M.A.

    Fundraising is an art and a science, and fundraisers make decisions on the meaningful and the measured. It is important to use both qualitative and quantitative performance indicators in all stages of the fund development process—through planning, execution, and evaluation. We, as fundraisers and managers in the nonprofit sector, must demonstrate the balancing act in using both tools—qualitative methods such as discovery and observation to lend depth and quantitative measurement tools to yield breadth. Both approaches in the fund development process and how these outcome measurement tools aid in defining performance metrics, moves management, and strategic stewardship. #la_jacobson