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Nonprofits and Foundations Evaluation TIG Week: Lessons Learned from 20 Years of Nonprofit Storytelling by Maryfrances Porter

I’m Maryfrances Porter, Ph.D., CEO and Founder of Partnerships for Strategic Impact and developer of the ImpactStory Strategy, a straightforward, sustainable structure for nonprofit storytelling. For 20+ years I have worked with small- to medium-sized nonprofits (~$500K – $3M) – and their funders – to tell powerful impact stories that move people to action.

There are several great resources for corporate storytelling with data aiming to communicate insights and promote opportunities (including my favorite: Effective Data Storytelling). However, these models don’t neatly translate to the needs of smaller nonprofits and their funders. Nonprofits with budgets under $3M are often working with small data, very specific human stories, and outcomes based on goodness achieved rather than profit. Additionally, capacity is limited: these nonprofits almost never have a data analyst dedicated to exploring data and looking for insights that could lead to action.

Nonprofit storytelling is needed (1) to externally communicate impact (primarily) to funders, and (2) to internally communicate why new actions are needed to sustain or improve impact. Since I have not found any straightforward structures to guide nonprofits in doing this when they don’t have sophisticated scientific or statistical knowledge, I have been creating one. The lessons I’ve learned have resulted in several key areas ripe for structure that facilitates storytelling. Four are described here.

Key Lessons Learned

Telling powerful stories starts with why programming is expected to work in the long-term. There are simply not enough evidence-based programs to address all the problems facing all people in all places and within all contexts. But there are almost always publicly available research summaries (such as the Rand Corporation, the Urban Institute, and the various federal departments such as the US Department of Education), which identify immediate and longer-term impacts of common approaches. Most nonprofits use a combination of approaches and will therefore need several citations to support each aspect of what they do. Without structure this can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Structures like this can help.

Nonprofits and their funders should focus on the story of immediate impact. It is simply not possible for the average nonprofit to conduct longitudinal research. In fact, long-term impact is hard to find even in well-funded, sophisticated science. Therefore, nonprofits and their funders should focus on the immediate achievements, knowledge, skills, and access people gain from working with them. A structure aligning the immediate impact measured with that from the research summary (above) supports a story for why longer-term impact is reasonable to expect – even when it’s not measured.

Nonprofits’ stories emerge from simple data analysis and graphing. Since nonprofits are not testing hypotheses, they can focus on describing the immediate impact people gained from working with them. All that is needed are counts, sums, averages, and proportions, as well as bar and line graphs. Excel allows nonprofits to create templates which become the structure for tracking impact year to year. Resources such as Depict Data Studio’s Simple Spreadsheets course are great for learning and applying these basics.

Nonprofits need structure to guide action-oriented storytelling. Interpreting why impact is strong or weak is most legitimately done by the people understanding the context in which the data was collected. A small group of nonprofit staff can look at the analyses and graphs (above) and follow a simple structure: (1) clearly state, out loud, what each analysis says, (2) list reasons why any undesirable results may have occurred, (3) identify actions to address or compensate for those results, so desired impact is more likely.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Nonprofits and Foundations Topical Interest Group (NPFTIG) Week. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our NPFTIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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