In the nonprofit sector, we tend to focus on numbers because we think that is what our funders want to know. Yes, quantitative indicators tell us something, but there is so much missed by only focusing on the numbers, and you’ll find more often that funders appreciate a story to weave those numbers together and explain their origin and potential future.

Requests for proposals often ask: how many people do you serve? How many people do you anticipate will graduate from your program? How many people will be better off because of the services you provide?

While those measurements absolutely matter, and that data should be collected and analyzed, nonprofits often miss out on the incredible opportunity to showcase the stories behind those numbers.

The truth is that qualitative data is just as valuable as quantitative data, and embracing the richness of human narratives in our work is crucial for making an emotional connection with your reader and having them view those numbers as what they really are: families struggling to get out of poverty, little girls with dreams of becoming scientists, elderly folks who want access to better care, and so much more.

Share the story of where these numbers have traveled; share their journey and the depth of connectivity to show much more information about what has really happened or is really happening to a person, a family and/or a community.  

Without this, the story is incomplete.

Unleashing the Power of Stories

Whether your organization is applying for grants, crafting a funder report, or posting on social media – emotional connection is key. 

There is a whole person behind every number and a story that could inspire funders, partners, and your key audience to invest in your mission, either emotionally, financially or socially. There is so much potential for impact when you share the whole story.

For example, if you are writing a communications piece to recruit program participants, it would be to your advantage to not only report the successful data outcomes from previous participants, but to also share quotes and stories from individual experiences. Your ability to recruit even more individuals increases through past participants sharing the impact your program has had on their lives. 

What Funders Are Really Looking For 

Working as a Grants Manager at a local nonprofit, I was fortunate to have a mentor who taught me the power of weaving quantitative and qualitative data together to share the outcomes of your services. This is a game-changer.

Balancing your communications to your philanthropic partners with both numbers and stories allows them to see a more comprehensive picture of what their investment is truly accomplishing.

Take, for example, the following two potential reporting scenarios to a funder at the end of a grant cycle:

  • Scenario 1 – Report-Out with Only Data: During this reporting period, our program realized a 70% graduation rate, which was not achieving our goal of 90%.
  • Scenario 2 – Report-Out with Data and Storytelling: During this reporting period, our program realized a 70% graduation rate, and while not achieving our 90% graduation target, 100% of participants, through our community partners, received mental health and wellness services, were enrolled in a healthcare plan, and received their driver’s license. The 20% of participants who did not graduate have continued receiving bi-weekly case management touch points – which include opportunities for other training and credentialing – through our community partners, as well as ongoing outreach from the organization for re-enrollment in the program, if desired. 

Both reporting scenarios are accurate, but only the second scenario tells the whole story and increases the chances of future funding. 

How Can You Capture and Manage the “Other” Data?

We know it’s easy to just focus on sharing numbers – and typically, it can be easier to collect that type of data, too – but there are some easy and awesome ways to collect the qualitative data you will also need! 

A few areas where processes can exist to collect this data are during intake, case management, participant feedback loops, post-program graduation follow-up and engagement, and overall community engagement.

Informal conversations tend to yield great insight into what might be going on for a participant or provide them with the trust to open up and share their journey with you, but having a standardized process for your team will be important for streamlining the implementation of data collection, no matter who is leading the work.

“Other” data can also consist of tangential data that impacts a person’s life but may not be the main reason they receive your organization’s services.  

Imagine you are running a program that provides workforce soft skills training – interviewing skills, time management, conflict resolution, communication skills, etc. Now consider that a participant in your program who receives their driver’s license during your program’s lifecycle, or that a participant’s family was able to secure stable and affordable housing during the program lifecycle, or that a participant who was provided with financial literacy education has opened their first bank account at 50 years old. How are you collecting this information other than a conversation with the participant? This piece is important!

All programs and organizations are structured differently, but having a dedicated space where “case notes” are always documented is critical. Case notes are the glue that hold the numerical outcomes together – they weave the emotion behind the numbers and provide a more complete picture of your services and your participants.  

Participant feedback loops are a fantastic way to collect ongoing data. If you don’t have a structure for regular case management, then have a process for when and how frequently you check-in with your participants (and graduates) to be able to collect that data. 

A little tip: Standardizing some questions will help you gauge progress for the individual over time, as you can see where support is and is not needed.

I recommend using Word documents for folks who don’t have a system in place. Build a template that can be recreated for each participant, and start a file on your desktop for that individual that is shareable and cloud-based for maximum collaboration.  

Bridging the Gap and Showing It!

Your work matters. Show the world the true impact that your programming has on lives, families and communities. Pushing your narratives to be inclusive of numbers and stories and documenting all of your data will increase your revenue generation, participant success, and organizational sustainability. Plus, all of your stakeholders will be able to better connect with who you are and what you are really doing.

Take these stories and create social media opportunities to promote your amazing work! Share these stories at conferences, planning committees, and congressional hearings. Let it be known that your work is reducing our economy’s financial and social burden by connecting all of your data! Use these stories to change damaging and inequitable policies and legislation. Their power can live beyond your conversations and impact so many lives!

The power of storytelling, beyond numbers, is critical to connecting your stakeholders to the true impact of your work. Let’s strategize and be thoughtful on how we can best weave stories into our reports, proposals and other external communications because behind every data point there is a person, a community, an experience.