Bring your non-profit story to life - the power of data storytelling

Joan Benson Profile picture for user Joan Benson August 17, 2020
In the pandemic era, data and performance metrics empower your storytelling - and build connections to donors. Sage Intacct's Joan Benson shares how non-profits bring data stories to life

Infographic display with hands data storytelling © Quality Stock Arts - shutterstock
(© Quality Stock Arts - shutterstock)

In what has inarguably been one of the most tumultuous years in memory — with a global pandemic, social unrest, and record unemployment — we're seeing a tremendous shift in community needs along with uncertainty in funding of charitable and nonprofit organizations. 

Unsurprisingly, even as money sources shrink, the need for services from nonprofits has expanded significantly. For instance, in 2020, roughly one in three people seeking groceries at nonprofit pantries never previously needed emergency food aid

As a result, nonprofits must ramp up their engagement efforts, nurture their current donors, and connect with potential new donors and grantors. The common thread? Storytelling. Nonprofits must communicate a compelling story that makes an emotional connection, strengthens donor relationships, and demonstrates your effectiveness towards achieving mission success. The following best practices can help you bring your nonprofit's story to life.

Build the narrative that connects donors to your mission

In a volatile environment for nonprofits, it's essential to build and share a powerful story about your organization. First, explain your organization's purpose from a human-centric perspective, and demonstrate the need for your services. Use individual examples. Then, tell your money story in simple and compelling terms. Powerful images that highlight your mission can grab attention and resonate with donors on an immediate, emotional level. Above all else, be sure to develop and embed key messages in the narrative. 

Here's how Room to Read visualizes their story:

Room to Read - data visualization
(via Room to Read)

(Graphic source: Room to Read)

Be memorable

All of your donor communications should consistently reflect your brand, which helps donors keep your organization and mission in mind. Make sure your website and emails use powerful imagery of the people you're helping, and the work taking place behind the scenes. Also consider using charts showing, for instance, the number of meals served, patient encounters, trees planted, or volunteer hours. Create and repeatedly use a clear and memorable tagline. Make sure all of your communications reflect your official colors, fonts, style, and voice, working together to reinforce your brand. And don't forget to invite people to join you in your mission..

Expand your reach with social media

All nonprofit organization want to expand their reach. When it comes to telling your story, social media can make a HUGE reach. The powerful images, metrics, messages and branding — are the elements that are most effective with social media. Video, pictures, events, impact — are key ways to expand your reach.

  • Post interactive content to build engagement
  • Use visuals to drive traffic. Twitter reach is 3x with photo or video.
  • Make it easy to donate — right from their phone
  • Plan, coordinate and schedule your social media in advance to get the greatest impact.

Use metrics to create a strong, credible story

Beyond your ability to create compelling emotional appeals, you also want to ensure you have a strong, credible story by mapping your mission to relevant data and metrics that communicate your priorities, demonstrate accountability, and show the meaningful impact your efforts have on your community and constituents. Whatever your mission, define the metrics that best support your stewardship goals and relentlessly measure, highlight, and share them at every opportunity. Then you can answer the vital question: what is your return on mission (ROM)?

Start with the basics — your funding and sources, how much gets devoted directly to services, how many volunteers you've recruited, or how many people you've helped. That transparency builds credibility with your donor base. Next, define and report some of your organizations' more specific outcome measures to bring your story to life, such as:

  • Average cost per meal served
  • Cost per patient seen per practice area
  • Improvements in test scores across grade levels over time
  • Cost to house a rescued animal
  • Membership growth and renewal rates

Increase your accountability with accurate, timely transparent info

Today, a modern cloud financial system is a vital component of the nonprofit organization's infrastructure through its ability to deliver real-time access to key performance indicators, outcome metrics, and scorecards that are relevant to all program areas. That makes it far easier to present a compelling story to donors that is accurate, transparent, and complete.

As the accounting manager for the Ford Family Foundation noted about its transition to cloud financials, "We're no longer using brain space on tasks we can automate, so we click fewer buttons and make more judgment calls instead." It's a shift that has accelerated during the COVID-19 crisis, as organizations continue to transition to remote working environments.

Financial 'board books' — concise and timely digests of relevant data (a concept borrowed from the for-profit world) — are an increasingly popular choice for nonprofits, helping to guide critical discussions and planning. Digital board books provide instant, actionable insights to key stakeholders. By automating the tracking and management of industry-wide best-practice metrics, these dashboards help you show benchmarks of your organization's financial health and sustainability.

Shine the light on your mission

Donors want to know more about the nonprofit organizations they give to, so they can feel good about their contributions to your cause. It's your job to tell them your story in a compelling and urgent way. To encourage more giving, it's essential to elevate your storytelling initiatives by identifying, tracking, and measuring the performance indicators that tie directly to mission impact. Cloud financial management solutions can help you shine a light on your mission by helping you demonstrate financial performance, efficiency, and improved outcomes.

Donors want to know that you're getting more for their dollars than other organizations might. And they want to be drawn into your story — to care about the people and values you serve. 

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