Withisms from Lori

Boldness, clarity and wisdom for fundraising professionals making a difference.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

If You're Only Sharing Boring, Unclear Data, What's the Point?

How to Use Good Data to Make Things Happen

True confession: I can be something of a nonprofit data nerd. I love how numbers can tell a story when they are presented well.

I’m a long-time advocate of using visual displays of your data to get people to take action. And, as I've mentioned before here in this blog, when you combine storytelling and data, I'm in heaven.

Sharing your data with your board or supporters IS important, critical even. I sometimes worry that people share data that few read and it certainly doesn’t cause people to take action.

Often I see board packets with information about the work done in the past — lists and spreadsheets — but the information doesn’t compel me to do anything any different.

The use of dashboards and other visual displays is one of my “soap box” topics this year. Please don’t share data that is meaningless. If the data is boring, unclear, or only talks about the past, what’s the point?

If you want to cause some action, (board members to make more thank you calls, or to have a meaningful discussion about the cash-flow situation) your dashboard must show what is so AND ignite conversation about what actions to take to change it.

At my trainings and in coaching sessions, when I show visuals like those below, staff and board members get a totally new perspective on sharing their data differently, more clearly. You can click on each of the graphics below to see a larger size.

By sharing data that tells a story board members are more engaged, donors give more, and volunteers are clear what actions to take. . . good dashboards actually make things happen.

This bar graph shows Individual Giving by Category for a nonprofit organization that wanted the board to understand that there was more work to do to close out their fiscal year and reach a higher level of giving that matched previous years.

The graph was created three months before the end of the fiscal year. The good news: They exceeded their year-end goals because everyone was on board with the dollar amounts they were wanting to reach in each donor category.

To accompany the Individual Giving graph the nonprofit organization also produced a graph showing HOW MANY DONORS were in each category.

This made it much more “doable” for the board to see how many donors to keep connected via email, phone calls, notes and invites to events.

A plan was made to engage the top 22 donors, a % of the 68 donors at the $100-$499 level and 20 or so donors who had been giving for more than four years. Each board member and key staff took responsibility for a few names/people. Giving levels increased at year-end due to their focused efforts.

The next two examples were provided by a colleague and friend of mine, Nancy J. Lee, who is a master at helping organizations with their financial and numbers story.

Nancy believes, as I do, that financials should tell a story.

These two charts make it much more clear for the board and staff to see trends over time and to ask important governance questions about what to do to deal with the cash at month end trend and the sources of revenue.

This Income Dynamics display allowed the board to see clearly that state support was declining in time to make some changes with their contributed income revenue sources.

Decisions about staff and allocation on a major gifts program, by an engaged board kept their income from dipping into crises levels.

I'd love to see what kinds of dashboards you are using. Here are two resources to help you create effective dashboards:
Blue Avocado: A Nonprofit Dashboard and Signal Light for Boards
Beth Kanter: Dashboard Design Principles


Priscilla commented on 26-Jan-2014 12:05 PM

I found this to be an interesting and instructive post. Presenting data in a visual manner reinforces the "facts of the financials" in a way that should be useful to boards. Also, charts/graphs/illustrations may lead to new types of discussions and questions among staff and board members.

Betsy commented on 03-Feb-2014 01:01 PM

Using visuals like charts and graphs makes the financials much easier to understand and take action on, especially for board or staff members that may be self-proclaimed "not numbers people". I also appreciate how much more efficient it is to use a visual chart or graph vs. giving people a spreadsheet full of numbers to interpret. Helpful post - especially the real-life examples - thanks!

Lori L. Jacobwith commented on 03-Feb-2014 01:22 PM

Priscilla and Betsy, thanks for reading! And for your comments. Yes, I think the use of visuals can engage board members AND increase understanding of your financials in a way that discussion and Excel docs just can't.

Jamie Robertson commented on 03-Feb-2014 02:28 PM

We are committed to making the practice of telling compelling stories with our data into a habit. See you Wednesday.

Phil Soucy commented on 04-Feb-2014 01:38 PM

I have always assimilated data better when I saw it and the trend line presented as charts, often taking the data and making the chart for myself. Also, the stark reality of an imminent shortfall or the wondrous achieving or even exceeding a goal is best done in vivid color.

Alice commented on 04-Feb-2014 03:36 PM

The blog was helpful to me because I was just recently thinking about how our team can bring what we are learning to the board in a way that will be interesting and motivating. Visuals. A picture really is worth a thousand words!

Vicki Chepulis commented on 04-Feb-2014 10:00 PM

This one, short blog post so aptly conveys how dry, sometimes difficult data can be turned into a format that is easily understood by anyone and inspires discussion to set goals and strategies to achieve them. I think one of our first and major challenges is to provide clear information to our board members so will truly understand the situation at the Cultural center, and then to inspire them to take action to help move the Center forward. Thanks, Lori! You are a genius at making this work seem simple and fun!

Cheryl commented on 05-Feb-2014 07:25 AM

I agree that visuals are powerful ways to communicate. However, if not done with great care, they can mask key issues. In another board I chair, we always have a financial picture in graph form (expected monthly income v. actual, etc.). But we also summarize financial data in a two page income and expense report, as the large variances are what the board needs to focus on. Do we have a revenue problem? An expense problem? A journal entry impact? Is our budget simply wrong (e.g., we guessed wrong on registrations, etc.). As someone with enough financial acumen to be dangerous, I like looking at and digesting the numbers themselves. I try to avoid the general ledger at all costs, though, and rely on the Treasurer to dig deeply enough!

sbobet commented on 22-Mar-2014 12:39 AM

Wow! After all I got a blog from where I be capable of truly
take valuable data concerning my study and knowledge.

Beth Holger-Ambrose commented on 19-Jun-2014 07:02 PM

This was a good blog post-I think it is helpful for board members to see visuals and our board chair has actually asked for some of these in the past in regards to our strategic plan and revenue/program expenses. I liked the visuals of the individual donors and think that may be a good tool for us to use in our presentation of our plan. Thanks for the insight!


Jen Becker commented on 23-Jun-2014 09:28 AM

We are really excited to start using more data at The Link - and also using it to keep our donors and supporters up to date on how we are doing!

Holly Portner commented on 23-Jun-2014 12:25 PM

Highly enlightening! I am a visual person to the core but use very little visuals to demonstrate our need. Especially when it comes to financials.

Rick Swanson commented on 24-Jun-2014 04:48 PM

I'm a data geek, too, and I strongly agree that data should only be presented in a format that is clear and compelling. Just because you can make a graph, doesn't mean you should. Graphs and charts are best used to illustrate what can't be easily seen by narration.

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