I read an article on the Guardian this morning: Are charities doing as much good as they say or are they telling tales? And it got me thinking.
The premise of the article is that charities are getting better at telling their supporters what they’ve achieved, but that sometimes what we say isn’t backed up by cold, hard fact. We don’t measure beyond a certain point, we just tick the box saying “yup, helped that person,” and report that back to our donors. We don’t follow the whole journey of the person we helped, we just get them started and feel good that we’ve done it. Then tell the donor and make them feel good that they’ve done it. All of this good storytelling thus hides that actually, we’re not as effective as we seem.
I don’t necessarily disagree with this perspective. We’ve all seen annual reports stuffed full of facts and figures saying such and such a charity has done X amount of Y and it’s achieved Z. And who’s to say they haven’t done that? Well, this article argues that unless you can back up that statistic with a measurable outcome, you can’t claim you’ve done it.
To me, there’s appeal in only reporting what you can say with full statistical confidence has definitely, definitely been done. And also reporting what you haven’t done, as the article points out. We talk a lot about our successes, but there’s obviously still need there, otherwise we’d cease to exist, right? So let’s be upfront about the goals and targets we missed, too.
An admirable approach, certainly. And I would agree that transparency is still some way off for many charities.
However, where it gets murky for me is in measuring everything to strict guidelines and only reporting on that.
Anyone who’s ever run a fundraising appeal knows that there are some things against which you just can’t put a definable outcome. The lift in a caller’s mood when they talk to a really interesting person who gives them career advice. The letter from a donor saying the direct mail reminded them of happy memories, and did you know about the time the students stole a stag’s head mascot from another university? An email from a recent graduate offering to write a post for you about their bursary, because it gave them so much opportunity when they were here.
All of these things aren’t in any way quantifiable, yet they make a mark on a fundraiser. They’re the stories you take with you when you move to a new job, the things you think of when you’re not feeling so positive, the moments that pop into your head when you sit down to think about writing next year’s direct mail appeal.
Without storytelling, we may as well just be ticking boxes.