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Narrating the Numbers: Getting to Human Results Through More Powerful Data Stories

On Wednesday, June 21, GuideStar partnered with Atlantic Media Strategies, the creative consultancy of The Atlantic, to present “Narrating the Numbers: Getting to Human Results Through More Powerful Data Stories,” a panel of leaders from across the nonprofit community. Panelists included Jean Ellen Cowgill, President of Atlantic Media Strategies; Lori Kaplan, President & CEO of Latin American Youth Center; and Rella Kaplowitz, Evaluation and Learning Program Officer at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. The discussion was moderated by Jacob Harold, President and CEO of GuideStar.

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“No numbers without stories, and no stories without numbers,” GuideStar President and CEO Jacob Harold explained as he introduced the panelists.

It’s a nice expression because it gets the point across, but it’s incredibly difficult to put into practice. As Harold pointed out, there’s a very real challenge striking a balance between the “narrative and the numerical.”

Conversations about data are typically abstract, so the panelists brought concrete examples of their experiences to the discussion. The Learning and Evaluation Department at the Latin American Youth Center has designed programs to help troubled youth live successful lives. Atlantic Media Strategies—the creative and consulting division of The Atlantic—work with organizations, including foundations and nonprofits, to advance their ideas and tell their stories more effectively. The Schusterman Foundation’s Data Playbook is a helpful resource for organizations to enhance their use of data in storytelling.

Effective information sharing is crucial in helping an organization achieve its mission, and the social sector continues to wrestle with finding the balance between data and storytelling.

Finding the motivation

Lori Kaplan has been at the Latin American Youth Center for 38 years. Previously, only stories and anecdotes were used to convey the meaningfulness of the organization’s work. LAYC has since pivoted to using a mix of data and storytelling that showcases the organization’s mission and values.

For the organization’s journey with data to be successful, Kaplan emphasized that it couldn’t be driven by external demand. Instead of just using data to prove to funders that the organization met its goals, LAYC wanted to make clear to both internal and external audiences that data would lead to improved outcomes and better lives for young people.

“Rather than staff seeing it as a chore, they’re seeing it as something that has fused the fabric of our mission and our values,” Kaplan said.

Finding a common language

Rella Kaplowitz, Evaluation and Learning Program Officer at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, has lots of experience with data as it applies to the social sector. Much of her work is direct capacity building for grantees using data measurements. Kaplowitz spoke about how the word data and its implications are scary to many people. For this reason, creating a data-driven organization and instilling a culture of data is a slow process, and it’s extremely important to show the value data can add to an organization.

A common language to talk about data can ease many common fears. There are words out there, such as outcome and output, that people use interchangeably because they don’t know there’s a difference between them. There are also words people don’t use at all because they aren’t sure what they mean. Kaplowitz emphasized that using a common language to talk about data is not only empowering but makes it much less scary to talk about.

Finding a perspective

Atlantic Media Strategies creates media solutions to help organizations achieve their missions, drawing on modern media lessons from The Atlantic. The first step in their work is listening and understanding an audience to figure out what the needs are and what stories will be most compelling. By looking at the similarities between nonprofit organizations and media companies, you can find repeating themes, including the challenge in balancing data and storytelling.

“As humans, we’re better at multiplication than division,” Jean Ellen Cowgill, President of AMS, explained. “If you tell me that 100,000 people are affected by this thing, my brain’s like ‘Oh okay. I get it. That’s bad.’ But if you tell me the story of one individual who has been impacted by this thing and you help me understand their entire world view, and then you tell me there’s 100,000 of those individuals? That is much more compelling.”

Cowgill related this back to an anecdote Kaplan shared about the success of a presentation at an LAYC fundraising dinner. A 45-second video that told a powerful story helped raise $100,000. If Kaplan had shared only the program’s data, there’s no way it would have had the same impact, but if she shared those numbers in an evaluation meeting, they would have a more successful effect. Two different audiences with two difference contexts requires an organization to balance data and storytelling.

Finding a reason

Rella Kaplowitz described a picture that sits on the desk of her office. It shows one image with a cluster of dots, titled “Information,” and another with connections through the dots, titled “Knowledge.”

“Storytelling with data is about taking information and turning it into knowledge,” Kaplowitz said.

For anyone out there feeling scared or intimidated by incorporating data into your organization’s storytelling, think of how much you already have accomplished. The information is in the work you do every day, and to make that accessible to a larger audience, you must draw those connections for them. If you’re looking for a reason to invest in data and storytelling, knowledge is the reason.

In closing the panel discussion, Harold gave attendees valuable advice for those hesitant to begin a journey with data: “For anyone out there really feeling stuck, the very simple advice is to just get started with whatever data you have and then build from there.”

Abbie Wade is a communications coordinator for GuideStar. She is currently a rising senior at The George Washington University, studying Journalism & Mass Communication and Political Science.

Topics: Data Storytelling