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The Community Foundation Blog

Storytelling with data
By The Community Foundation / December 11, 2019
Storytelling with data

by Isabel Eljaiek, Program Analyst for the Community Foundation

Isabel EljaiekAs a Social Worker, I specialize in macro-level social work, which is to say I’ve concentrated in community and systems-level interventions. Data has always provided the foundation to the work I’m involved in. I’ve spent the past decade developing and managing food access, urban agriculture, and community outreach programs, both here locally and nationally, and I’ve experienced first-hand how data can benefit nonprofits. Data can (and should) create more effective programs through an iterative feedback loop. Data can be used to spread the message about what my organization is doing. Data can help identify the most vulnerable members of our community. And data can be used to illustrate the interconnection of many of the challenges we face, which I believe is an important understanding if we are to tackle the toughest challenges. 

One of the most important lessons I’ve gleaned from these experiences is that a data-driven mindset is one of the most powerful tools in my toolbox. Here at the Community Foundation, I focus on data in a variety of ways. I support collective impact models by aggregating data sets from multiple partners. I work with nonprofits to build and strengthen logic models and theories of change. I research a variety of topics and interventions that inform our focus and donor interests, and I use data to tell stories. 

One of the most important aspects of working with data – and one I have found to be an aspect that makes many turn and run the other way – is how to communicate what data tells you, in an honest and ethical way. Data from social service programs exist in a context, and if you communicate your insights poorly, or mislead an audience, it can be worse than not using data at all. 

Overwhelmed by data

Data-driven narratives

Data is just a collection of numbers until you turn it into a story. Showing charts and dashboards can be overwhelming to folks without offering a compelling narrative that places the data in context. When approaching a data set, I try to find the story embedded within the numbers. I’m using the word “story” intentionally here – what is the hook? Numbers and statistics are essential for a data-driven story, but they should be playing a supporting role to a larger narrative you are crafting. The leading role belongs to the human element. Our data represents the lives, conditions and experiences of real people. Our neighbors, our colleagues, the folks we are in line with at the grocery store – they have the starring role, and one that should be understood with great care. 

Who is your audience?

Data-driven stories are not a one size fits all package. What does your audience know about the topic you’re presenting? A data-driven story for a technical audience will take a very different shape than a story intended for someone whose first exposure to the subject matter is your presentation or visual. If I’m presenting a data-driven story to someone in a more managerial role, I’ll want to provide an in-depth, actionable understanding of the subject matter versus a presentation to a C suite executive who only has time to glean the significance and conclusions. 

Incorporate visual elements

Storytelling with data naturally lends itself to visual storytelling. Could your story be told through a clever infographic that takes your audience on a visual journey? Do you have the opportunity to color code and add iconography to your report? Visual elements make a data-driven story more engaging for all audiences and can emphasize the most important take-aways. 

Be objective while offering balance

Data-driven stories should be devoid of bias. Even if your goal is to influence, your story and visualizations should be based on what the data says, not what you want it to say. It’s natural that our predispositions concerning our mission may tempt us to cherry-pick the data to tell the story we want to tell. Often, I am crafting stories about people affected by a societal problem that doesn’t personally affect me. I view it as my responsibility to raise those voices, not just the data about those voices, into the stories I present. Elevating the voices of those affected provides a strong balance to the data, without introducing our own assumptions and biases. 

Embracing the data wave

Join me!

One of the aspects I love the most about my role at the Community Foundation is connecting with a broad range of missions and folks in the community, like you! I welcome the opportunity to chat about any of your burning data, impact, and evaluation-related questions and I invite you to join me at the Demystifying Data Summit on February 4th

About Isabel: As Program Analyst, Isabel is bringing focus to program outcomes and evaluation in order to support a strong and thriving nonprofit sector. Her work begins with equity and is informed by diving deep into research on best practices for the implementation of direct service programs as well as systems change and advocacy efforts. She has great enthusiasm for working with quantitative data sets and outcome measurements for social change (really!), as she has a direct understanding of the impact this brings to the important work of philanthropy. 

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