Tell the Stories of Impact

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By Dr. Eric Lankin

Sitting with a potential donor, I told the story of Netanel, a young teen originally from Ethiopia, now living in Israel, who while skipping school walked past a local community center in Netivot. He stood by the fence watching a youth basketball game. That day, outside the community center was Shoshana, an ELEM (Youth in Distress in Israel) social worker. She was supervising this basketball game of teens-at-risk, a part of ELEM’s outreach to the children of immigrants with major challenges of integration into Israeli society. Noticing Netanel, she invited him to join the game and meet the other teens. This began a long term relationship with ELEM, its social workers and other program staff. That meeting transformed his life and future.

Looking into the potential donor’s eyes, I could see his eyes well up. I assumed that he was moved by the story, concerned about Ethiopian Jews and their struggles in Israel. However, he shared with me that Netanel’s story brought him emotionally to a place in his own life where individual mentors took him under their wings and turned his life around. The potential donor became a donor to ELEM that day.

As nonprofit leaders, we are often told by experts that data analyses about the results of our programs is paramount in our work.

Recently, I heard a presentation by the Chair of the Board of Overseers of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater. After many years since graduating, it was interesting to learn how much the school has grown and how it has changed. One statistic he shared fascinated me. The most popular major in this business school now is “data analysis.” Even more fascinating to me was his statement that in five years, there will no longer be a major in this field at Wharton but that every major subject will include data analysis.

I recognize that the study of marketing to a specific target group must include the collection and the analysis of data. Nonprofit organizations must be attentive to the demographics, buying power, and preferences of their target populations when making critical design decisions and adjustments to their offered products, in order to meet the needs and wants of specific populations.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation Logic Model, an important tool in the toolbox of nonprofits to measure success, divides the results of specific activities into outputs and outcomes. Simply put, the outputs are the specific results that are presented at the end of a program, i.e., How many attended the program? How much money was collected? Outcomes, however, are the long-term results of the program, measured sometime after, for example, “What is the behavior change of the participant of that program three to five years later?” “What was the impact of that effort?”

Yes, it is true that both outputs and outcomes produce data to be analyzed, often important data that program managers, board members and donors seek to evaluate the impact of the programs and the charitable gifts. With all of the investment in time and resources, these groups want to know whether that program or series of programs were worth the investment.

However, it has been my experience that no package of well-considered numerical data beats the telling of stories, like the story of my donor to ELEM above, when trying to inform donors  of the impact of their charitable gifts. I admit that some donors like the pie-charts that might indicate success in the outputs and outcomes. But if the goal is to display personal transformation and powerful impact, telling the story of an individual or a group and how they were positively changed, connects the donor emotionally to the cause most effectively. It is the emotional connection to the cause of the nonprofit that is often the most important factor in future giving and deepening connection.

How do you collect the stories? It is by asking the people who you serve, to share. Interacting with the clients and listening intently can go a long way. Take notes after the interaction and not during the interaction to make the clients feel that you are truly listening. Include time dedicated to this purpose at staff meetings that serve the dual purpose of encouraging staff to share challenges and review the stories that display long-term impact.

So I collect and tell stories. I am always careful not to include real names, so as to avoid violating the privacy of the program participant, as careful as I am not to display photographs without specific permission. Sometimes I make small changes in the description of the program participant to make doubly sure he or she will not be able to be identified. I do not doubt that the stories that I tell are true, no less true that if I included the correct descriptions.

The purpose of telling the stories is clear, that if I am able to emotionally connect the potential donor or donor to the cause through the stories of individuals or groups transformed, I have successfully bridged the divide between individual and cause, so critical for long-term stewardship. The numbers and the pie-charts are interesting but not as powerful as the stories.

Carl W. Buehner was quoted saying, “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

Dr. Eric Lankin is President of Lankin Consulting, a firm focused on the needs of the nonprofit community and an (Adjunct) Professor in the M.A. Program in Nonprofit Management and Leadership at the Rothberg International School of Hebrew University of Jerusalem.