When Patty Stonesifer took the helm at Martha’s Table, the Washington nonprofit was well run, but it measured success in anecdotes: Isaiah, who first came to the social-service group as a 5-year old and is now a teacher; Muhammad, who’s in medical school at Columbia University; and many others.
To advance the charity’s fundraising and programs, the group needed to get serious about measuring results, Ms. Stonesifer told the audience at Philanthropy Next, a daylong conference here run by The Chronicle of Philanthropy that looked at how nonprofits can use data to demonstrate impact and improve fundraising. The meeting drew more than 200 participants.
Building a culture that prizes data and analysis required a change in mind-set, said Ms. Stonesifer, former chief executive of the Gates Foundation. She said that when she first started talking about data, employees said, "Well, just tell us what donors want, and we’ll gather that."
Ms. Stonesifer’s response was that data isn’t about what grant makers want.
"Donors want to know that it’s an intentional organization that understands the answer to ‘Why are you doing what you’re doing, and what do you know about that progress?’ " she said. "So this is about us."
While it’s critical for nonprofits to know what their ultimate goals are, groups need to devise metrics that are meaningful to the work that employees do everyday, Ms. Stonesifer said. For example, she said, a teacher who works with infants shouldn’t feel like she’s responsible for the children’s third-grade reading levels.
"But if we talk to Miss Shernese about the amount of language that is used [in the classroom] and these other issues that are within her control, she loves it because she wants to do the best possible job in her circle of influence," said Ms. Stonesifer.
Of course, collecting data about programs is just the beginning.
As the Kanawha Institute for Social Research & Action, in Charleston, W.V., started to get serious about data, the group’s leaders learned how easy it is to overwhelm people with too many numbers and charts.
Carl Chadband, who until recently served as the social-service group’s chief operating officer, remembers sharing reams of data about the group’s prisoner re-entry programs with officials at the state legislature.
"You could just see people’s eyes glaze over," he told conference participants. "And I said, ‘Oh, we got a problem here.’ "
Since then, the institute has become more selective about the information it presents about its programs, and leaders are careful to put the data into context. Instead of publishing an annual report, the group prepares a series of impact reports designed for people interested in different issues, such as health or employment.
"Your value-driven data is like a walk-in closet," he said. No supporter wants or needs the whole closet. "You’re going to dress for the day. You have to pick what kind of data you need that matches the audience."
Telling a Story
Youth Villages’s early efforts to measure results were modest, a handful of volunteers making calls to families. Today the Memphis charity, which serves troubled children and families, is a data powerhouse with a team of 18 researchers who track how kids are doing six, 12, and 24 months after they complete treatment programs.
As the nonprofit strengthened its analytic muscles, leaders kept their eyes on the numbers, said Richard Shaw, the group’s chief development officer. But over time, they realized the facts and figures weren’t enough.
"Most people don’t remember the data unless you connect it to a good story," Mr. Shaw told the audience. "We’re all emotional, and if you tell a great story, it helps connect the data and makes it memorable."
But telling a story with data doesn’t necessarily require traditional approaches.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has a simple mission — to save the bay — but it works on environmental problems that are complex and sometimes hard to grasp. One challenge: how to convey the seriousness of Baltimore’s storm-water runoff problem in a way that’s meaningful to supporters.
After heavy rains in Baltimore, storm water mixes with wastewater and overflows the city’s storm drain system. Since 2011, more than 100 million gallons of sewage-contaminated water has flowed into the waterways that feed into the bay.
To drive home what that very big number means, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation created interactive online maps that allow people to see the impact on the places where they live and work.
"These story maps are one way that we are trying to take broad and complex and seemingly impersonal issues — water quality and economics — and distill it down to relatable concepts that will resonate with people: clean water," Kate Wilson, a director of principal giving at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, told conference participants.
Pulling Donors In
A single powerful piece of data can act as a hook to draw supporters into a larger conversation about a nonprofit’s mission, she said.
The foundation’s new Brock Environmental Center, in Virginia Beach, is one of the greenest buildings in the world. But at first, Ms. Wilson struggled to talk about the building in a way that connected with donors. She dove into the details of solar-power kilowatt hours and geothermal wells and efficiency ratios.
"Unless I was talking to an architect or a builder or someone really interested in conservation building, I was totally losing these people," she said. "I was buried in the content of the data and not really telling the story."
Far more effective was a copy of the $17.19 monthly electrical bill for the 10,000 square-foot facility. In fact, it has been so effective that the foundation has made the bill into a poster that hangs prominently in the building.
When people visit for the first time, they almost always stop and ask about the bill, Ms. Wilson told the audience.
"It provides that opportunity for me to walk down the trajectory of many different stories about the organization," she said. "And it explicitly demonstrates to people that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation walks the walk."
Even as donor demand for data increases, charities will need to become adept at balancing facts and figures with stories, argued Peter Drury, director of corporate and foundation relations at Seattle Children’s Hospital and Research Foundation.
"All of philanthropy is a blend of heart and mind," he said. "But some of us lead with heart and follow with mind. Some of us lead with mind and follow with heart."