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Framing Data to Tell Your Story

There are conferences and podcasts, books, TED Talks and training courses, all for an activity as old as human language. Some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned probably came from stories. Think of The Good Samaritan, any of Aesop’s Fables, or that children’s book I can’t remember about the boy who pulls the thorn from the lion’s paw. Novels and memoirs have likely evoked some of the most elaborate and vivid places you’ve ever seen, created in your own imagination from their detail and richness. Stories can provoke an emotional response; they speak to possibility and elicit empathy and physical sensation, the ways in which we interact with the world.

So then, what better way to relate the importance of the programs you’ve supported and the lives affected by your grantmaking than through storytelling? If you collect progress reports from grantees, this is an ideal way to obtain anecdotes to share with donors, board and committee members, and in annual reports or through social media. In truth, charting accurate data for program outcomes is vital to understanding what works or what future adjustments need to be made. Incorporating this data into real stories is often easier to share with a wide audience and can help garner additional support. Northern Piedmont Community Foundation recently produced one-page stories of select scholarship recipients from each fund. They were printed with photographs on a full-color sheet and sent to each scholarship fund advisor as a thank-you for their generosity and a testament to the difference their funding had made. 

On follow up forms in Foundant's grants or scholarship management solutions, we often see clients adding optional photo uploads and URL-type questions where grantees can share YouTube videos or entire files of photos from a document sharing site such as Dropbox. Important quantitative data is still gathered, but additional text areas are added to forms in order to collect grantee stories and lessons learned. Concentrating on individual success in the context of the larger data story brings information to a level that can be genuinely felt and understood through our own lives. We may not have experienced homelessness, but we have all experienced uncertainty, discomfort, and fright. One woman’s story of a transition to security, well-being, and confidence is within the realm of our imagination and can better communicate the importance of a program that moves people into permanent housing than the numbers can, as impressive as they may be.

Data can also be displayed through purely visual illustration, another method of story-telling. Mona Chalabi - a journalist and artist who produces work for media outlets such as The Guardian, the BBC, and National Public Radio - creates colorful hand-drawn graphs, animated videos, and creative illustrations that represent real data. In addition to bar graphs and pie charts, she may include a hand-drawn portrait of 5 children rather than the number 5 standing in for those same children. 

To learn about the grants you’ve made, ask for and listen to your grantees’ stories. 

  • Request stories in bite-size anecdotes that can be easily shared with little editing. Data Traps: Breaking Free
  • Ask for photos or, when appropriate, go to grantee locations to take your own. 
  • Host speed-dating or Pecha-Kucha-style events where nonprofits can address multiple donors in interactive settings.
  • Invite grantees and their clients to board meetings to share the impact of a grant approved by the board.

There are countless ways to tell the stories of your grantmaking, and facts supported with colorful stories are among the most compelling.

About the Author

Ashley began working in the nonprofit community in Memphis, TN in 2005 and joined the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis as a program officer in 2008. In 2013 she became the Director of Grants and Initiatives, managing the foundation’s competitive grant programs. During this time, Ashley helped develop GiVE 365, which became a model for collaborative giving programs in foundations across the United States. She has been a leader in the community foundation field and served as the Chair of ProNet, previously the Council On Foundation's professional development group for community foundation program staff. Ashley is happy to continue her career with a team dedicated to supporting the philanthropic sector. Outside of work, she enjoys being outdoors, especially during bird migration along the Mississippi flyway.

Profile Photo of Ashley Harper