How to Use Good Data to Make Things Happen

True confession: I can be something of a nonprofit data nerd. I love how numbers can tell a story when they are presented well.

I’m a long-time advocate of using visual displays of your data to get people to take action. And, as I’ve mentioned before here in this blog, when you combine storytelling and data, I’m in heaven.

Sharing your data with your board or supporters IS important, critical even. I sometimes worry that people share data that few read and it certainly doesn’t cause people to take action.

Often I see board packets with information about the work done in the past — lists and spreadsheets — but the information doesn’t compel me to do anything any different.

The use of dashboards and other visual displays is one of my “soap box” topics this year. Please don’t share data that is meaningless. If the data is boring, unclear, or only talks about the past, what’s the point?

If you want to cause some action, (board members to make more thank you calls, or to have a meaningful discussion about the cash-flow situation) your dashboard must show what is so AND ignite conversation about what actions to take to change it.

At my trainings and in coaching sessions, when I show visuals like those below, staff and board members get a totally new perspective on sharing their data differently, more clearly. You can click on each of the graphics below to see a larger size.

By sharing data that tells a story board members are more engaged, donors give more, and volunteers are clear what actions to take. . . good dashboards actually make things happen.


This bar graph shows Individual Giving by Category for a nonprofit organization that wanted the board to understand that there was more work to do to close out their fiscal year and reach a higher level of giving that matched previous years.

The graph was created three months before the end of the fiscal year. The good news: They exceeded their year-end goals because everyone was on board with the dollar amounts they were wanting to reach in each donor category.


To accompany the Individual Giving graph the nonprofit organization also produced a graph showing HOW MANY DONORS were in each category.

This made it much more “doable” for the board to see how many donors to keep connected via email, phone calls, notes and invites to events.

A plan was made to engage the top 22 donors, a % of the 68 donors at the $100-$499 level and 20 or so donors who had been giving for more than four years. Each board member and key staff took responsibility for a few names/people. Giving levels increased at year-end due to their focused efforts.

The next two examples were provided by a colleague and friend of mine, Nancy J. Lee, who is a master at helping organizations with their financial and numbers story.


Nancy believes, as I do, that financials should tell a story.

These two charts make it much more clear for the board and staff to see trends over time and to ask important governance questions about what to do to deal with the cash at month end trend and the sources of revenue.


This Income Dynamics display allowed the board to see clearly that state support was declining in time to make some changes with their contributed income revenue sources.

Decisions about staff and allocation on a major gifts program, by an engaged board kept their income from dipping into crises levels.

I’d love to see what kinds of dashboards you are using. Here are two resources to help you create effective dashboards:
Blue Avocado: A Nonprofit Dashboard and Signal Light for Boards
Beth Kanter: Dashboard Design Principles


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