Beyond Metrics to Stories

Tommy huddled in the corner, cold and hungry, but determined to protect his little sister from whatever dangers the night might hold . . . at least until their mom came home . . . if she came home tonight… Take a moment take to consider your response to that sentence compared to the following: Child abuse and neglect in our county exceeds the statewide average but thanks to XYZ agency’s programs we have closed that gap by 10%.

How you responded likely depends if you are a donor, a funder, a board member, a service recipient, government official or a member of some other stakeholder group. Since nonprofit organizations have to respond to all of these stakeholder groups and more, communicating impact can be especially challenging. That was one of the key finding in my recent research study on Aspects of Strategic Leadership Unique to Nonprofit Organizations — nonprofit organizations need to go beyond metrics to individual stories to convey mission impact.

For years, nonprofits have been challenged to quantify their impact. In most cases, that is much more difficult than tracking a financial bottom line. Hence the development of logic models, theories of change, and a host of other frameworks designed to determine the effectiveness of a given program. I am not suggesting metrics aren’t important (just ask my staff, we track a crazy amount of data), it’s more a case of different data meaning different things to different people. For example, improvement on standardized measures may mean a great deal to a specific funder, mean nothing to a donor, and as part of a large of data set can be a bit overwhelming to board members.

Stories, however, can have a huge impact on donors and board members, limited impact on some funders and even less sway in maintaining a government contract. As a general rule, see-feel-act has a larger influence on people than think-analyze-act. In effect, unless specifically required to do otherwise, I believe people make a decision to support a nonprofit with their heart, and they justify it with their mind.

So what does that mean for a nonprofit leader? For starters, it means you have to be clear on the audience you are speaking to, and craft the information you share accordingly. At the same time, you don’t want it to appear to be sharing wildly different messaging. Like any organization, consistency adds to credibility. Thus, a nonprofit leader needs messaging that includes, but goes beyond metrics to highlight individual stories of impact.

If you responded at more of a gut level to the story at the beginning of this blog, as opposed to the statistic, you’re not alone. For maximum effectiveness, nonprofit leaders should not ignore, but rather move beyond metrics to connect people with individual stories of mission impact. See-feel-act … it’s a real thing!

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