Monday, June 15, 2009

Numbers vs. Humans

The good news is, you don't have to choose. Much of the recent discussion about the use of individual stories as the best way of evoking emotion and effectively representing a cause has gotten my attention. It's my take that stories are a big part of telling a nonprofit's story, but that adding data, numbers and statistics tells it even better.

I completely agree with the fact that people don't donate to an organization, they donate to a cause. Still, there are ways to make great arguments for and elicit powerful emotional responses to a cause that are not rooted in a protagonist, a personal struggle, or vivid imagery.

In a recent training for Network For Good, Mark Rovner of Sea Change Strategies argued that numbers and data often stand in the way of making an emotional connection with supporters. Surely we all feel for the polar bear clinging to the last floe of ice, and even more so the pleading eyes of a hungry child. But what about us nonprofits that don't have a strong narrative to make our case? Better yet, what about that supporter out there who is much more affected by numbers, percentages or a shocking look at the bigger picture?

Even organizations that have clear service-oriented messages who could rely on the use of images and individual characters sometimes choose to mix up their messaging with important statistics and verbal cues to reel in supporters.

For example, the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago balances human interest photos with a good load of numbers to convey the desperate need for its work in the community. To me, knowing that Catholic Charities provides food, clothing and shelter to more than 10,000 people each month is just as persuasive as seeing the face of a person who needs this help. In fact these two pieces of information mutually support each other, giving me a clearer picture of both what Catholic Charities does and what the need is in the local community.

Another organization that uses data to tell its story is the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board. Un- and underemployment have significant effects on a variety of social issues in that city, but the PWIB lets the research speak for itself and the root problem at hand: “40% of all Philadelphians in the labor force have incomes below the poverty level.” An astonishing number that runs no risk of putting the audience to sleep.

Whether considering a website, email appeal or simply a supporter update – keep in mind that there's power in numbers – and that numbers too can tell a story!

For further reading on how to put your numbers to work for you, see this recent IMPACTMAX post on “Social Math” and relating the unfamiliar to the familiar.


  1. I actually have to disagree with your focus on "numbers". I recently wrote about the topic of emotions vs logic in donation decisions. I wrote:

    "One of the best ways that humans process information is when it is presented in a story format. Good stories offer compelling evidence for their underlying truth. But not by bombarding the listener with statistics. Instead good stories use narrative to build a convincing case.

    This idea is often summed up in the philanthropy world as “No Stories Without Numbers and No Numbers Without Stories” (I’ve said this myself in the past). But I think this is actually wrong. Numbers are not the key. In fact the evidence suggests numbers may be the wrong way to go in this case. I think instead it is No Stories Without Truth and No Truth Without Stories."

    That being said, the overall thrust of my post was that just talking about how important the causes is, is the wrong approach. You also need to talk about how effective your program is. Effectiveness is rooted in numbers, but I think it is best related through stories (stories rooted in the truth!)

    Thanks for starting this blog! I've really been enjoying it.

  2. Thanks for your comment Sean. I think the distinction between truth and numbers is an important one -- and one that often gets muddled in communications with donors. I revisited your recent post and appreciate what you are saying about heart versus head in philanthropic decisions.

    I think there is an additional distinction that is important to make though and that is between using numbers (or storytelling methods) when helping people to understand an issue and using numbers (or storytelling methods) when trying to encourage them to become donors.

    There has been some interesting work done on converting activists to donors and vice versa -- so these certainly aren't two totally distinct audiences -- but I do think that they are two different kinds of communication.

    There may be cases where people get a much clearer understanding of an issue from numbers (as a means to understanding stories in the aggregate) but don't necessarily build an emotional connection to the cause until a separate communication makes those numbers more personal through a story.

    After all, nonprofits aren't only in the business of raising money :)

  3. In Made to Stick, they argue that numbers are best used when explaining a relationship. But that even then, displaying the numbers are pictures is much better.

    I agree nonprofits are not just in the business of raising money, but when communicating with people they are in the business of spreading ideas. My point is that numbers themselves are not the way to do it. But that emotional stories are not the trick either. It is stories steeped in truth. You can't lean on number to demonstrate the truth to people, but the numbers are still behind the story.

  4. Sean,

    Thanks for your thoughts! You've added some resources to the discussion that I'll definitely check out.

    I think since we're all somehow in the process of spreading ideas, a good combination of methods is always necessary. With this post, I wanted to draw attention to those nonprofits who don't necessarily have a "true story" or those of us who just get excited about statistics.

    Personally, I trust that there's enough truth in data when I consider supporting a cause. Generally, we shouldn't rely on one way to spread an idea - but overall I don't think that numbers are hurtful when it comes to getting a point across.

  5. Luise,
    I use numbers ALL the time, so we're in this together! But see the Rokia example in my post and tell me what you think. Maybe people have seen that example as evidence that you should just tell heart string pulling stories to donors and forget and underlying evidence. I rejected that idea in my post, but think there's something very important in the Rokia example. What do you take from it?

  6. Yes, I think that the Rokia study is great to rely upon for fundraising, in that particular social area. But my main takeaway is that we're not all trying to raise funds all the time (as the discussion showed) and that there's significant advantage to appealing to "both sides of the brain." Also liked Beth's post about this.

    I believe that lasting supporters and regular donors are only generated when they've gained a solid understanding of the cause and its underlying 'truth,' And have made the 'logical' conclusion that donating to this particular cause will support change in the first place. After that, as the Rokia example shows, these personal stories and 'tear jerkers' are a great way to help supporters choose specific instances of when to give attention and money to the cause.


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