Most donors choose to give to nonprofits because they believe in the cause. So it follows suit that they would want to know that their gift is actually contributing toward the impact they believed in at the beginning. Research from The Bridgespan Group reinforces this idea. They found that the greatest need donors have from the organizations they give to is information on impact and effectiveness. So, how can nonprofits communicate impact? One would think that this would be part and parcel of any nonprofit fundraising strategy. And yet, it turns out that more nonprofits struggle with showing impact than you might expect.
Communicating impact begins with why your donor gave in the first place
The temptation is to communicate impact with an annual report, or with a few standard metrics, like “Every dollar supports _______.” While these are useful, they may not resonate with the majority of donors.
Let’s look at the data from the report one more time. Three important facts stand out:
Only about a third of all donors research the nonprofit they give to. This means a large majority of donors give because something in the nonprofit’s message resonated.
As noted above, the greatest need donors have of nonprofits is to see the impact of their giving.
And yet, “Donors don’t have strong preconceived notions of what impact information they need. They just know they want to hear that their funds are being used productively.”
Most donors initially give from the heart. They were compelled by the work your nonprofit is doing and wanted to participate. In other words, they’re fans of your nonprofit. But once they’ve given, their top need is to see the impact. They want validation that they’ve truly participated in your work. What’s interesting is that they’re not sure themselves exactly what the impact report should look like. In a way, they’ll know it when they see it.
So, when it comes time to show impact, how do you meet your donor’s expectations? Especially when they’re not sure just what their own expectations are?
The best approach is to connect the impact with the reason they gave in the first place. Stories are the most powerful tool for doing that. Especially when the story pervades their entire journey: from deciding to give, the thank-you they get for giving, and the continued relationship they have with your organization.
What are nonprofit impact stories?
Showing impact via stories is a nuanced, powerful art form. It is much more than the (somewhat routine) long narrative about how an individual was directly impacted by the nonprofit.
Stories in this context are a combination of data, facts, and human interest that all add up to show that your organization is doing meaningful work. In fact, with digital experiences like social media, your website, and email, your stories can be short moments (like, for example, an instagram image of a person you’re helping) or in-depth content that highlights and ties together multiple ways your organization is making a difference (like an impact page on your website).
The most compelling impact stories are engaging enough that your audience will feel that they, too, are making an impact by giving. And it will compel them to give again—even when you don’t explicitly ask.
In his article,Measuring How we Measure Impact, YMCA’s Chief Development Officer, Gary Laermer, puts it this way: “Ultimately, the goal for the Development Officer is to ensure the ever-so delicate balance between impact metrics, compelling storytelling, and connecting the donor to a cause.”
While there are many ways to do this, the key is to “humanize” the work. In other words, make the work accessible to the donor. “Through humanizing our work, we give meaning to the mission we aim to accomplish every day…The goal is not a gift acquisition—but rather, creating an understanding among donors about how their gift helps solve a problem and meet a need.”
Examples of how nonprofits can communicate impact:
What’s it take to create a good impact story? There are a number of ways: images, video, graphics, copy or a combination of those elements. Of course, numbers tell stories, too. And when talking about impact, numbers are essential. Combine narrative, images and some key data, and you have all the right ingredients for communicating impact.
To illustrate what’s possible, below are a few examples of nonprofits using stories to demonstrate impact.
St. Mary’s Food Bank in Arizona is the first food bank to be established in the world. They are able to provide families with seven meals for every dollar donated. Their whole website blends a variety of impact storytelling, including transparent financials, stories of grateful families, and more. What’s most interesting, however, is their donation form.
It’s embedded over an image of Kennedy, a key visual part of the story. The donation form is actually a calculator to show how many meals any donation will provide. This gives an immediate sense of impact, even as the donor is deciding how much to give. Because the form is pre-populated with $50, it highlights to visitors exactly how much impact their donation can have, and how it can affect someone like Kennedy.
Habitat for Humanity is a global nonprofit housing organization working in local communities across the U.S. and around the world. Over the many years in operation, Habitat has been able to accumulate a plethora of stories that demonstrate their impact.
Overall, Habitat for Humanity’s site is a case study in master storytelling for impact. They integrate numerous stories demonstrating the powerful human impact of their work. The content is filled with statistics about how many homes and people they can help. Integrated with their stories are calls to action to volunteer, donate, and further explore the programs they offer.
Room to Read seeks to transform the lives of millions of children in low-income communities by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. Their impact page provides visibility into the depth of impact their organization has had.
At the top of the page is an interactive map showing numbers of children impacted by country. This is a beautiful way to provide a sense of scale for how and where they’re working across the globe.
There are thousands of ways nonprofits can communicate impact, and we’ve only showed a few. Remember, the impact story should permeate everything you do from day one with each of your supporters. Each time you pick up the phone, send an email, or drop a letter in the mail, ask yourself, “does this communication clearly highlight how this donor’s support is helping us to accomplish our mission?” In the end, don’t be afraid to try visual, video, and graphic storytelling, too. These media can be highly engaging.