April 19, 2014
(Ryan Reynolds is design director at MSDS, a New York firm specializing in design and branding for nonprofits, financial service firms, and technology companies. A version of this post appears on the Communications Network blog.)
The nonprofit sector seems like the last place you'd find indexes in widespread use. After all, indexes are built on data; well-established ones like the Consumer Price Index take a vast amount of consumer good prices and pack them into a neat little number, which can then be plotted longitudinally to give us a barometer of inflation over time. As nonprofits begin to leverage the troves of data they've been sitting on, however, it is changing the way the rest of us look at data.
To understand how numbers can help nonprofits tell better stories and affect meaningful change, we need to start with a little history lesson. It used to be that nonprofits such as UNICEF or the Red Cross would try to raise awareness of and compel action on an issue like hunger or disaster relief by focusing on those who needed help. Images of hungry children or homeless families helped drive home a reality that even the most hard-hearted person found hard to ignore. Need to sound the alarm on climate change? Roll out a photo of a polar bear on a melting iceberg and you had the ingredients for an old-school nonprofit marketing campaign.
Not anymore. While images can function as a powerful call to action, cause-driven marketing has evolved since the dawn of the information age. Audiences have become more educated and sophisticated. And they've come to expect more transparency around solutions designed to address an issue or problem. Increasingly, the heart-tugging narrative accompanied by anecdotal evidence just doesn't cut it. In this new environment, cause-driven organizations can't just ask potential donors to take their word for it. Donors thinking about supporting an organization need two things: to understand the issue the organization is working on, and to see evidence that the organization's efforts are bearing fruit.
To be sure, nonprofit organizations have come a long way in terms of the former. MSDS has built a practice around helping cause-driven organizations articulate who they are, what they do, and why they matter. But for a nonprofit to truly scale its impact, it has to compete for — and win — its share of donor mind-space, and that means delivering a consistent, compelling brand experience that resonates with potential donors and helps move them along a knowledge continuum from "not familiar with" to "expert" on the issue in question.
But what about turning them into advocates for your cause? That’s where data comes in: increasingly, sophisticated audiences want concrete evidence. And therein lies the problem — the more data you present to them, the harder it is for them to make sense of it.
Indeed, this fundamental paradox helped spawn the infographic boom: as organizations adopted digital tools to help them do and communicate about their work, they quickly found themselves awash in data and realized they needed to package that data in a way that made it more accessible and appealing. The result has been an explosion of data visualizations that combine quantitative and qualitative content with snappy graphics. While some of these are little more than "cartoonized" presentations of a handful of statistics, at their best infographics distill important information into an easily digestible format while helping audiences gain a new perspective on an issue or cause. Like so much in this digital era, however, the infographic is proving to have a relatively short shelf life, as organizations look for new and less cumbersome ways to present a lot of data to their various audiences.
Enter the index. One advantage of an index is that it simplifies the complex. A well-constructed index captures vast amounts of data across multiple categories and presents it as a bite-sized piece. For example, the Yale Environmental Performance Index measures environmental performance for 178 countries across 9 issue areas and 20 different indicators. By itself, the raw data collected by the folks at Yale and Columbia (a partner in the effort) is all but incomprehensible. But distill that data down to a series of scores via a robust and transparent index methodology, and all of a sudden you have an elegant system that allows you to compare apples to apples across a broad variety of criteria.
Which brings us to the second key advantage of indexes: they provide empirical context for issues that are often difficult to get a handle on. By themselves, raw statistics don't mean much. You say that country A poured X million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere last year? That sounds like a hell of a lot, but as a layperson I really wouldn't know. But roll that data into an index score, and you can tell not just what a country is doing in terms of its carbon emissions, but how its performance compares to its peers as well as its own historical performance.
As one of our clients told us, "Stories get their interest, but metrics get their buy-in." Compelling imagery and crips narrative are an important part of communicating about any issue or cause. But an index that simplifies complex data and creates context for it tends to "democratize" that data in ways that make it easier for audiences to test their assumptions and draw evidenced-based conclusions. And that’s a powerful idea.
— Ryan Reynolds