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Apr 23rd, 2019

Using Data to Power Your Nonprofit Story

Your guide to storytelling through data.


Nava Friedman (She/Her)

One of your greatest challenges as a small nonprofit might be to simply tell your story. You deeply know why your work is critical. But can you clearly communicate the why and how to your community of supporters so they feel the value of your mission?

As more grants and federal funding require clear data points in the application process, the best way to convey value is through data stories. Storytelling through data follows the same parameters as fiction: have a statement with a beginning, middle and end, with your mission woven within.

The Beginning: Don’t touch the numbers until you define what success looks like at your organization.

The first question a data analyst will ask you is “What are your program goals? What is your mission solving?” You need a firm answer to this in order to map specific data points to your program’s goals. If you can’t answer this, you’re going to continuously feel overwhelmed by numbers, charts, spreadsheets and survey responses.

Funders and stakeholders of all types have been increasingly clamoring for data from the organizations they support, while concepts like “big data” (or the analysis of huge data sets, typically from millions of individuals) have become some of the buzziest terms of the decade. However, your data doesn’t need to be “big data” — it just needs to be your data, that communicates how you are accomplishing your mission. As long as the data you are collecting is measuring a goal you need to meet in order to fulfill your organization’s mission, it’s as big as it needs to be! When you take your data and convert it into a story, just like you would a story with a beginning, middle and end, the data story will address your specific program goal and what you have found. And it will give a clear picture to those in your network of what your program is truly accomplishing.

The Middle: Not all data is equal.

When you take the time to truly define program goals and success at your organization, you won’t be flooded by numbers you don’t need or can’t do anything with. Best practices to live by when collecting and analyzing data:

  1. Collect the data you actually need — not every number you can get your hands on. You can go in just saying “hey, let’s collect a whole lot of statistics about our program — surveys, focus groups, industry research, polls” — but many of these will end up just being noise, and you’ll build a data collection plan that ultimately doesn’t give you insight or action-orientated takeaways. When you build your data collection plan, make sure it’s focused on collecting the information that will help you prove your progress toward your goal.

  2. When surveying, get a representative sample. There’s strength in numbers — make sure you’re collecting as many responses as possible so there’s concrete proof for your conclusions. Based on the total population your program serves, you can determine how many and which people you need to get information from in order to confidently express your progress.

  3. Create objective and easy-to-use data collection tools. If you’re using surveys, make sure your questions are clear and not leading your respondents to specific answers or potentially confusing phrases, which can lead to inaccurate results.

  4. Be open to what the data is telling you. When you analyze your data, you may be surprised at what you find — maybe you’re meeting your goal, but in a different way than you thought, or you’re moving a little slower toward your goal than you hoped. Don’t panic — uncovering this can actually help you improve the way you understand your impact and the way you execute on your mission. Furthermore, funders are increasingly looking for transparency when it comes to how organizations are assessing their progress and evolving their programs.

The End: Explaining data is marketing gold.

“Data storytelling” often means taking a collection of numbers and converting it into digestible infographics, board presentations, and charts. So on top of collecting the right data and evaluating it, you have to clearly and engagingly articulate the story that it’s telling. This is where nonprofits thrive. Your mission evokes emotion, is changing a community and creating positive social good. Take your mission statement (your narrative) and weave in your program goals and data findings.


Take a look at a few stories our nonprofits are telling with data:

Left: California Wilderness Coalition infographic/ Middle top: Operation Splash infographic/ Middle bottom: samples from Maternity Africa’s annual report / Right: samples from a Wahi Kupuna’s survey

Left: California Wilderness Coalition infographic/ Middle top: Operation Splash infographic/ Middle bottom: samples from Maternity Africa’s annual report / Right: samples from a Wahi Kupuna’s survey

Click here to view the custom collection of projects that will ensure you can clearly communicate that impact to your constituents and supporters.