How to Harness the Power of Data for Better Nonprofit Storytelling

Following is a guest post from Rella Kaplowitz, a Program Officer at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. The Foundation has recently published a Data Playbook an online resource to help organizations of all sizes to use data to assess and communicate the impact of their work.

Data can be a powerful storytelling tool to communicate impact to current and potential donors and funders.

Though it is easy to lose sight of the meaning behind each metric or each chart, at it’s heart, data tells a human story. Behind every data point is the story of real people who are looking to us to make a real difference in their lives.

It is our job as nonprofit professionals to help our data speak. Here are three tips to help you use data to tell your story of impact:

1. Get comfortable with your data

In order to effectively use data for storytelling, you have to know your data. Collecting it, analyzing it, using it.

You have to know what you have and don’t have, and understand what your data proves. Knowing your data will also help you to know what data you may be missing that could make your story even stronger.

Whatever stage of the data journey you are on, it can seem daunting to go out and collect more. The good news is that you don’t have to do everything all at once. In fact, you will likely have more success if you take small steps, show the value of what you are doing and grow your data capacity over time.

2. More isn’t always better

When crafting your story, focus on the most relevant data. You likely have a lot of data that can highlight successes in your work, but you do not want to give your audience data overload. Pick the smallest number of data points (usually 1-2) that best illustrate your point and present those.

Let’s look at an example of a chart that you may have seen, or even put together in the past:

This chart is well composed, but it conveys so much information that it is hard to tell what the takeaway is. The story is not clear.

Instead, let’s use the data displayed above in two additional visualizations:


The major difference is that each of these visualizations convey a clear and singular story.The graphic on the right displays the increase in

The graphic on the right displays the increase in proportion of individuals reached. The graphic on the left displays the increase in the number of individuals reached overall. Both are important stories, and telling them individually will make your story even stronger.

Don’t forget qualitative data

Over the last few years there has been a move to rely more on quantitative data—numbers of individuals reached, number of dollars raised, change in behavior before and after a program.

While quantitative data is important, let’s not forget that the qualitative data—the stories of how you are changing lives on the ground—are equally important. It is the combination of quantitative and qualitative data that makes storytelling with data so effective.

Take a look at the visualization below. Think about how this visualization brings the numbers to life by adding anecdotal stories.


For more tips on how to effectively tell your story with data, check out the Data Playbook, and specifically our section on Communicating Results.

Are you using data to share the story of your work? We want to hear from you! Share your ideas here.

John Haydon