Connecting the Dots with Data

This piece was originally posted on The Communications Network blog on May 17:

At last week’s Center for Effective Philanthropy Conference (CEP), it was refreshing to see the role of communications keep popping up during discussions that explored the links between data and foundation impact.

That’s not surprising, either, and for at least for two reasons.

For one, when CEP first began conducting surveys of grantees almost a decade ago, foundations primarily used those findings to learn what their grant recipients liked about doing business with them and what needed improvement.  In the years since, many foundations have seen great value in sharing grantee feedback from these surveys on their Web sites for the public to see.

Often times these postings include discussions about improvements foundations are making spurred by comments from their grantees.  As an example of how much more a foundation can make use of these findings, the James Irvine Foundation went one step further, and instead of just posting the 2010 Grantee Perception Report on its Web site, it recently created a page that invites people to comment on the findings.

But a second reason communications is a common topic these days during discussions about assessing impact is because the data that comes out of that work can tell important stories about foundation performance.

Or as CEP President Phil Buchanan puts it, “We see time and again the crucial connection between good data and analysis and good communication. Foundations need to be clear about what they’re trying to do, how they’re trying to do it, and what they’re learning along the way.”

The data, in other words, can be a helpful frame for those stories we want to tell about what foundations and their grantees are accomplishing, as well as how to frame the message about what went wrong and why, as does happen.

A lot of ideas were put forward over the course of the conference about how to use data, including to whom to share it and how. Those conversations, naturally, resonated with the many communications professionals in attendance.

For me, one of the more intriguing suggestions about how to combine data and storytelling, for example, was offered by Molly Martin, operations and learning officer for the Lumina Foundation for Education.  In a post she wrote for the CEP blog during the event, Martin offered this observation:

We all know the power of storytelling in philanthropy.  Stories can move our grantees to action, compel our colleagues to support important work, engage our policymakers, and convince our neighbors to help us build a movement for social change.  But what of stories without stats?  Without data to enrich the tales we tell about our work, how can we be sure we’re even telling the right story?

Martin goes on to say that if foundations want their work to be taken seriously by people they’re trying to influence and move to action, it will take more than anecdotes to make the sale.  She writes:

Emotional anecdotes are calls to react…not calls to action.

Martin illustrates her point by commenting on a discussion during the CEP conference that featured Debi Brooks, Co-Founder of The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and the actor-turned philanthropist himself.  As Martin notes,

If ever there were a foundation that could ride the tide of a compelling personality, it’s the Michael J. Fox Foundation.  Yet they choose to tell their story—to frame the invaluable currency they have in a beloved actor—by sharing the science…the Foundation chooses to train and arm their best asset with rich data.  Fox becomes more than a compelling personality: he becomes a compelling personality with a well-informed, actionable story to tell.

To Martin, the lesson from the Michael J. Fox Foundation is both clear and simple:

Train your poster children.  Arm your best ambassadors with your best data and let your story of impact unfold.

That comment reinforces a comment made earlier in her post:

Data equips your stakeholders with tools that enable them to become your envoys for the long-haul.  And if that data is couched in the form of a digestible, accessible story told by a beneficiary, it’s all the better.

What do you think? Can storytelling be more compelling with better and more thoughtful use of data?  Do you have experiences of your own to share?  Let us know.

Bruce Trachtenberg is executive director of The Communications Network.

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