4.05: You love stats. But do stats love you?
Statistics play a role, but it's a supporting role.
Statistics are way overrated, at least as tools of persuasion.
Yet many nonprofits rely almost exclusively on statistical evidence to convince donors (members, alumni, donors, etc.) that the organization's work is important.
Science-based or data-driven organizations are particularly prone to favor statistics over anecdotes in order to make the case for support. Environmental defense groups, child and education advocacy groups, hospitals: they all eat, breathe, and understand statistics as part of their everyday work.
But a heavy reliance on statistical evidence is a bad and unprofitable habit, if it squeezes out emotional and anecdotal content.
Bottom line: being "stat happy" will not raise as much money as relying on tales, emotion and human interest to persuade donors. Don't believe me? Read on.
------THE ORIGINS OF STAT LOVE
It's easy to see why people assume statistics persuade.
Statistics don't lie. (Or do they?) They can be stated with certainty. They're hard to refute. They're numbers, and numbers are absolutes. (Aren't they?) They don't require belief or faith. They are hard fact, ground you can take a stand on. (Maybe.) They're the basis for good policy and planning. (Well, yes, that's true.)
Furthermore, and crucially, statistics are easier to collect than anecdotes for a lot of people. Statistics are at your fingertips, in copious quantities: on paper, online, in reports. If you're kind of shy or nerdy, statistics are an easy date. You don't have to talk to anybody to acquire them. You don't have to risk rejection. You can stay behind your desk or nailed up in a proverbial ivory tower and still get the job done (sort of).
Just as important, I think, science-based or data-driven organizations genuinely admire statistics, which often are obtained with ingenuity and difficulty. Policy geeks and the science-minded look forward to sharing a good stat that nails the case.
I suspect they also like the organized, clean, shiny nature of statistics. And "more is more" seems like a good thing, for those afflicted with true stat love. They see sterling qualities in the sheer solid assurance of stats presented en masse. Unfortunately, the average person can't begin to appreciate these qualities. You're making a big mistake if you think your donors want raw data.
Statistics have their place, don't get me wrong.
But they can be surprisingly weak persuaders when you are trying to move people to give.
------THE PROBLEM WITH STATS
- You can't really "feel" statistics, so they cannot stir the emotions. And emotions rule in fundraising.
- Statistics are abstract, rather than concrete. Abstractions are invisible. You cannot see them in human terms even when they are graphed. For everyone but the specialist, abstraction is the slowest, least reliable way to create understanding.
- Most of the time we're trying to persuade someone due to the alarmingly large size of our stat. But the meaning of a large number will vary from person to person.
- Statistics can easily overwhelm the reader. Many people do not have fun with numbers.
- To donors (i.e., non-scientists), data is just work. True, stats add credibility. But a tiny bit of statistical evidence is probably all you need to make your case. Facing a cascade of statistics, the reader ends up having no idea what your point is. And, trust me, there needs to be a point.
Any data you choose to force on the donor should tell a SINGLE interesting story. Like a spear, your choice of data should have just one point.
The example below is an attempt by a wonderful food bank and homeless shelter in Connecticut to explain to its donors what the agency had accomplished in a year:
"Our Food Pantry welcomed 1,539 visits that received five days of groceries matching the needs of 664 different households; households comprised of 680 children, 843 adults and 38 seniors. Open mornings, five days per week, the pantry experienced an average of better than 6 visits per day."
Can you honestly tell from that untidy stack of numbers whether the agency succeeded or not? Can you tell if their programs dealt with a LITTLE of the problem or a LOT of the problem? Can you tell how big the real need was?
The donor expects answers to those questions. And you better deliver those answers clearly and succinctly, if you want to secure future gifts.
Furthermore, donors want to IMAGINE their gifts at work. They want to see in their minds actual people being helped. It gives the donor pleasure. But how could anyone possibly envision, from just numbers, the real people who benefit? That's where anecdotes come in to save the day, of course. Anecdotes are filled with faces. Anecdotes are the real world. Usually, statistics are just math.