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Numbers, Stories, and the Formula for Making the Case

This post was taken from the weekly B-mail message sent March 1, 2022 to subscribers. 

Last month I delivered a talk - IN PERSON - to a group of fundraising professionals here in Virginia. It was thrilling to be in the same room as my audience; to see the nodding heads, raised hands, and smiling faces. As invaluable as Zoom has been throughout the pandemic and beyond, there is just no substitute for proximity. The energy exchanged between people who are together brings a whole new dimension to the topic at hand.

Association of Fundraising Professionals, Feb 17 2022

Yours truly at the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Shenandoah Virginia, February 17, 2022

The topic, in this case, was email and how to use it for better fundraising results. We covered lots of the ideas that I write to you about each week and my presentation included a quote I’d seen over the years about the “golden rule” of writing fundraising appeals: No numbers without stories and no stories without numbers.

Sounds like a good rule, right?

I thought so, too, until an audience member relayed advice she’d heard on a recent webinar by FreeWill. The gist of the recommendation was to NOT put statistics in stories about impact - lest they break the emotional wave the reader is riding and interrupt the experience. She asked me what I thought about that advice and, I must say, it makes a lot of sense. And it made me want to ponder the point more.

Numbers without stories can sometimes fall flat, lack context, and have no emotional appeal. Stories without numbers, on the other hand, might be just fine.

Narratives bring life and texture to data and stories help us understand impact in terms that we can relate to or conceptualize. Without a translation, themes stay trapped between digits; it is the telling that crystallizes abstracts.

While numbers often need framing and explanation, a great story doesn’t require hard evidence in order to hit home. And, as fundraisers, hitting home is a must - it’s where the heart is, after all.

What's more, numbers inside a story can be a distraction, or worse, a detraction for the reader - especially when we consider the many pitfalls of using statistics to make a point. Aside from making sure the numbers we’re using are accurate, we must also make sure they’re honest, relevant, and used in the proper context. The following article from NextAfter spells out common ways that data is misused by nonprofits - and provides guidelines for using numbers effectively.

I particularly like the example about blood donations and how easy it is to inadvertently overstate a problem.

But, as the article maintains and which I also generally believe to be true, “The majority of your best donors need good data to make your stories compelling.” 

So, considering all of this, I suppose my answer to the question “do numbers hurt or help a story?” is YES. Which means, of course, that the formula for impact-data storytelling success - like the whole of nonprofit work - is forged of nuance. Progress comes from the unrelenting refinement of messages that grab the reader and won’t let go.

And that’s 100% true. 



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