Even 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had something to say on the subject. "There are three kinds of lies," he said. "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."
I'm careful about statistics. I much prefer inspiring and convincing anecdotes. Statistics have all the spontaneity and passion of drying paint.
The typical reader doesn't have the time or patience to slog his or her way through a sludge of stats. But you'll find he or she is open to anecdotes. They provide action and feeling and more dramatically reveal your organization.
I'll give you an example.
It's late. I turn off the lights in my office and begin walking to the parking lot. I'm crossing the quadrangle when I feel a hand on my arm. It's one of our students. It's obvious she wants to talk.
First, let me tell you about Helen. It's one of the most extraordinary stories we've had at the College. When Helen first came to us as a student. ...
Something like that is so much more striking than saying, "A third of our student body is on some type of financial assistance."
Think in terms of the pelican.
You could write about "the odious British Petroleum spill off the coast of Louisiana. The worst ever. Over 680 million gallons of oil." But it's impossible to comprehend that much oil. And it certainly doesn't make the heart race.
Try this instead:
On the shore you can see pelicans—thousands of them. A rescuer is feverishly working on one whose wings are stuck like glue. Solvent can't undo the damage.
When the rescuer tries to open the pelican's beautiful long beak, he finds it stuck, too. He knows he's going to lose this majestic bird. He's working against time. The death will be slow and painful. But inevitable."
That's a lot more concrete and descriptive than recording that an estimated 3,000 pelicans were killed as a result of the oil spill.
Here's another example. Let's say your student body has increased dramatically over the last 10 years, or your membership has skyrocketed 15 percent every year for the last 5, or your admissions to the emergency room have grown exponentially in the last 3 years. All of these lend themselves effectively to statistics and a graph.
If your statistics are impressive, by all means you should use them. It's what Walter Carpenter, former CEO of DuPont, referred to as "the eloquence of facts." But use them as a drunk might use a lamppost. Only for support, not illumination.
Long rows of statistics will make an actuary or accountant weep with joy. But for most, the eyes glaze over. Instead of the drudge of numbers, use graphs. They tell the story with impact and in a flash.
Here's when to consider statistics:
When showing your program is relevant. The need for your proposed program must be relevant. Donors look for that. The case you build and substantiate must be faultless and impregnable. To demonstrate relevancy, you need facts, details, and back-up information. This is where statistics lend a helping hand.
At St. Mary's, we treat patients day and night. Every day. Every hour. Every minute. Last year, 128,000 people used our emergency room.
There isn't another hospital within 60 miles. The flow through our emergency room is unending. It's impossible to calculate how many would not make it through the night if it weren't for St. Mary's.
You can't fake relevancy. That would be like what the former governor of Texas, Ann Richards, described as "putting lipstick on a pig and calling her Monique."
When demonstrating the allure of your program. The case for your program must have dramatic and emotional appeal. It has to sizzle.
Statistics won't really help in adding drama, but at times they do open the door a crack for you. The great film director Fellini said: "Sometimes if you pull a little tail, you will find an elephant at the other end."
Use statistics when you want evidence of impressive growth.
When demonstrating urgency. There's nothing more critical to the success of your program than describing the urgency for the funds. As the great German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote, "Urgency is the source of everything."
This is one place where statistics can be a welcome friend—when substantiating urgency. The increase in the number of people served. Admissions to the emergency room. The number of homeless on the streets.
Your job is to convey the gravity of the situation—to make the situation dire:
It is February and frigid weather has struck. If we don't have the funds now, there will be 900 on our streets tonight without dinner or shelter. More than 350 of them are children.
But tread lightly. If you present a barrage, it can have all the drama of a diva in decline. Whereas used judiciously to prove a point, stats can strip the flesh bare.
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© 2014, Jerold Panas. Excerpted from Making a Case Your Donors Will Love. Excerpted with permission.
Jerold Panas is author of Making a Case Your Donors Will Love, from which this article is excerpted. His other books include Asking, The Fundraising Habits of Supremely Successful Boards, and Mega Gifts.