Of all the groups I have worked with, those in the philanthropic sector have some of the biggest opportunities to tell compelling stories with data. Yet the strategic advantage that can be gained through this is often missed: in some cases, no data are used when they could be incorporated to help make a stronger case, while in others the data that are included confuse more than they inform. And as data about foundations and their activities inevitably make their way into the public sphere, these communication challenges are heightened.
Bradford Smith, president of the Foundation Center, tells a story that illustrates what is at stake.
‘Years ago, I was in a foundation meeting where an industrious staff member, who had analysed hundreds of active grants, shocked the room by announcing we were doing far less to help the poor than we believed. That was then, and there was little concern that such an insight might leave the building and go public. Today foundations find themselves in a world where, one way or another, the data they have designed for internal purposes will increasingly be consumed by others. And it may be used to tell stories that are different from the carefully crafted ones that foundations create about themselves. This is going to be tough. In general, philanthropy came late to communications and foundations have labored to get beyond speech writing to strategic communications. Now, just as the messages are getting more sophisticated and soaring through cyberspace on the wings of social media, foundations will have to make sure their data supports their messages and vice versa.’
In other words, foundations will need to become data-literate. A quick real-world example, focusing on the challenges of using data effectively for internal decision-making (a good place for foundations to begin honing their data presentation skills), serves to illustrate the importance of choosing the right data presentation strategies to communicate about foundation work.
I recall working with a client who wanted to frame a discussion for their board about where to use unallocated funds for the upcoming year. They shared with me the following visual: