Question Zero Part 2: Communicating, Demonstrating and Engaging with Information

Continuing from last post, let’s get into the details of how to measure and communicate your success.

The question to think through is “What kind of story are you trying to tell?I use the word story deliberately – many people forget that any time you are presenting a number or report there is a reason behind that, a story you are trying to tell.

Are you trying to justify additional budget for a new project? Are you trying to show your board how well you are doing? Do you want buy-in to launch a new and innovative service? It is critical to think through these issues before jumping straight to looking at measures, metrics and dashboards.
There is a telling Dilbert that illustrates the perils of NOT doing this:

So let’s assume you want your audience to hear your story, not just be seduced by pie.

There are three genres of stories that non-profit organizations tell:

  • Communicating issues
  • Demonstrating impact
  • Engaging stakeholders

Communicating issues

Some organizations have a primary focus of raising awareness of issues such as child poverty, violence against women or food security issues. Many of these organizations come from a policy and research background, investing time and energy in creating white papers, policy documents and background briefings. The challenge is that if the information on issues is buried in PDF documents, the only people that read them are the people that already agree with the issue – missing the people that don’t yet know about or understand your cause.

In these cases, what is best is to pull out simple metrics that illustrate the issue in real terms, preferably comparable to examples that resonate with your audience (more on audiences next time).  The Living Wage campaign is attempting to do this with their stats on poverty in BC:

  • BC has the highest child poverty rate in Canada
  • BC is the only province where child poverty rates were actually higher in 2006 than in 1997
  • BC is one of only two Canadian provinces where median earnings for individuals fell between 2000 and 2005
  • More than half of BC’s poor children live in families where at least one person has a full-time job

I like the last point best as it has an element of shock behind it and a “I didn’t know that” element which also directly supports the message of the campaign that poverty is not just about unemployment and welfare, it’s about wages. Personally I would recommend moving these stats higher (i.e. above the fold) on the page but that’s another topic.

Demonstrating Impact
The second category of stories happens when you (or others in your space) have succeeded in communicating the importance (or at least the existence) of your issue and now you need to demonstrate why your organization in particular is best suited to do something about it.

As with metrics and measures around communicating impact, best choices are simple and direct. It is often tempting to show an extended chain of impact measures but that is usually too confusing for your stakeholders to grasp immediately. An example from United We Can illustrates some good ways to do this, along with some areas to improve the communications.

From a Vancity presentation, here are some amazing impact measures from United We Can in Vancouver:

Results for 2008:

-150 jobs created
-20,000,000 containers recycled
-$2,000,000 put back in the hands of local binners
Now these are great number, very clear and the sheer scale is impressive. What would make this even more compelling is the addition of some comparisons (e.g. what proportion of containers in Vancouver was this? 20%? 50%?) and some performance to target measures (e.g. $2m was 15% our 2008 target and an increase of 30% over 2007).
Unfortunately, as with Living Wage, these numbers are hidden from the web site and therefore not used in communications vehicles. However, they do now have the Vancity video posted which is a great start!
Engaging Stakeholders
Once you have succeeded in communicating your issue and demonstrating why your organization is best able to do something about it, the final step is to engage your stakeholders. At the end of the day, you want your constituents to take action – to write a letter, to volunteer, to donate, to join a march, to change their lightbulbs – not just listen.
This is often the most challenging part of a non-profit’s work, especially in the environmental sector. Ordinary citizens are often overwhelmed with the scope of the issue and skeptical that their own individual actions can make a difference. The key here is to make a concrete link to an individual action and collective impact. This can be done by highlight the impact if 100 of that individual’s friends also took action or to show the impact of actions over time.
FINCA has done a good job of this in the microfinance space with their Village Bank Donation Calculator. This calculator shows some simple impacts such as the total amount of money generated from small loans, the cumulative value over time and most importantly, the lives impacted. I find this to be a great example of helping an individual understand that even a small action can have a large impact.
Next time, we’ll address the audience for these stories – what type of information they are looking for and how to make sure you are speaking the right language.

One thought on “Question Zero Part 2: Communicating, Demonstrating and Engaging with Information

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s