In the fundraising world, we all sit on mountains of data. We rely on that data to develop donor engagement strategies and measure our success; but having the data and communicating the data are two very different things. Synthesizing and sharing fundraising data can stimulate discussions about fundraising can elevate an organization’s culture of philanthropy and inspire prospect and donor engagement.
Here we share six key steps to communicate donor and fundraising data more effectively to inspire action:
- Understand the story you wish to convey and state it clearly.
- Identify your audience.
- Articulate a call to action.
- Isolate the data you need.
- Develop a visualization that presents the relevant data.
- Anticipate questions or areas of confusion.
1. UNDERSTAND THE STORY YOU WISH TO CONVEY
It may surprise you to learn that the first step is to start with a story rather than a data set. Data visualization can help fundraisers tell stories about their work more effectively. But what is the story you wish to tell? Maybe you are trying to illustrate that alumni engagement programs have helped to increase alumni giving for millennial graduates. Perhaps you want to illustrate that your major gifts program has helped to increase the average size of donations at your organization. Or you might hope to convey that your nonprofit is ready to embark on a campaign planning study to test an ambitious fundraising goal.
Before you begin to crunch numbers or design a presentation, give yourself time to identify and summarize the story you wish to tell or the question your story will answer.
2. IDENTIFY YOUR AUDIENCE
Think about who you will be telling this story to. Is it the organization’s CEO? Or the Chair of the Board of Trustees? Perhaps it is the Development Committee. Ask yourself, “What do I want this person or group to learn? How do they best understand and digest information? What do I want them to do with the information that I share?”
As you prepare to share information and data with your audience, keep in mind that different audiences will receive information in different ways. Too much detail may confuse certain audiences. Meanwhile, too little data can create more questions than answers. Keep in mind that both qualitative and quantitative data can successfully engage your audience.
3. ARTICULATE A CALL TO ACTION
A call to action will help your audience understand what is expected of them. Are you sharing this story because you need your CEO to change a policy or program? Or does your story help your Board decide how to allocate additional resources? Has an initiative not produced the return on investment your executive director was expecting, and you need to consider changing course? Or are you asking your Trustees to invest in a project that can widen your nonprofits circle of support?
If you spend time clearly expressing the specific action you want your audience to consider, you will have a much easier time engaging your audience and ensuring they focus on the most important priorities. Data can be a powerful voice and persuasive communication tool that should support and emphasize your story and call to action.
4. ISOLATE THE DATA YOU NEED
These days, nonprofits are swimming in both qualitative and quantitative fundraising data. This can make it hard to sift through the numbers and isolate the metrics required to tell a specific story to a specific audience. But when we take the time to isolate the data set that is essential to conveying your story, your audience will experience more clarity and less confusion.
For example, imagine that you are trying to convey to the president of a college that increasing the number of front-line fundraisers at your organization has improved fundraising outcomes. You are asking the president to sustain current staffing levels, despite the need for budget cuts at the institution. Although it may be tempting to share a wide variety of metrics, the president will be better able to absorb the story and call to action with simple, clear information. Consider using only a few key pieces of data, such as average gift size over time.
5. DEVELOP A VISUALIZATION
Whether the data visualization is a chart, graph, diagram, or illustration, we recommend that your first step in creating a visualization is to sketch possible visuals that could tell the story you wish to share. You don’t need to be an artist! Studies suggest that handwriting and drawing engages the brain more than typing on a keyboard or moving a mouse, so using a pencil and paper as a jumping off place can help you develop a visual that you wouldn’t have necessarily considered when sitting in front of a screen. 
4 Tips for Developing a Visualization:
- Sketch First | Always begin by sketching ideas on paper before creating on the computer
- Consistency is Key | Watch for consistency in colors, patterns, symbols, scales, units, labels
- Title Matters | Consider the title carefully, making sure it articulates the story told by the data or reflects your call to action
- Simple is Best | Strive for simplicity and avoid effects that don’t contribute to your audiences’ understanding of the concept
After sketching some ideas, recreate them using the tools available to you. Many of us can access Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint or Google Charts. Free tools also include RAWGraphs, Datawrapper, and Lyra. With some practice and exploration, all these tools offer the ability to take simple data and transform it into a powerful visualization.
6. ANTICIPATE QUESTIONS OR AREAS OF CONFUSION
Once you have created a visual that seems to clearly tell your story and articulate a call to action for your audience, take a deep breath. You are almost done! We suggest that you print out your visual, put it in a folder, and set it aside for 24 hours. When you look at it with fresh eyes the next day, imagine that you are the audience and think of some questions they might ask. This isn’t easy! In fact, you may want to find a trusted advisor or colleague to do this with you. Ask them to share their reactions, questions, or areas of misunderstanding. This feedback will help you refine your data visualization and approach your audience with more confidence.
To create clear and concise visuals, we recommended you follow the six key steps outlined above. These strategies will help you to share fundraising data that helps your nonprofit’s decision-makers understand the story you are trying to tell, engages them in constructive conversations, and inspires action to fulfill your mission.
 Ose Askvik et al. (2020). The Importance of Cursive Handwriting Over Typewriting for Learning in the Classroom: A High-Density EEG Study of 12-Year-Old Children and Young Adults, Frontiers in Psychology.
Our world exists beyond binaries. Learn from CCS Fundraising Systems Director Maz King how to ensure that your data honors your donors through data integrity and inclusion.