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Communicating Impact: Do We Appeal to the Heart or the Mind?

January 17, 2008

(Guest contributor Rich Polt is president of Louder Than Words, a Boston-based PR agency. He previously blogged on PhilanTopic about Second Life, an Internet-based virtual world.)

Most of us agree that foundations need to do a better job of demonstrating and communicating their impact to outside audiences. It's the how that has everyone so flummoxed.

One camp (let's call them the "left-brainers") says that impact is best shown through mindful analysis: robust measurement systems, rigorous evaluation, and quantitative reporting. Another camp (the "right-brainers," presumably) advocates for softer measures of impact that resound with the heart: compelling case studies, persuasive storytelling, articles that depict human drama. While the answer most certainly lies somewhere in the middle, there is no denying that each of us tends to favor one approach over the other.

This dichotomy was made very clear to me as I read through the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative's recent digest: "Five Questions about Demonstrating Impact." The piece -- a great read -- is a virtual roundtable discussion with leaders from the field looking at how foundations can show their value and why they should.

At one point, the question is posed to the expert panel: "Why do foundations struggle with it [demonstrating impact]?" Consider this left brain-influenced response by Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (note: the bold-faced type comes directly from the document):

Many foundations struggle to demonstrate their impact because they simply aren't working strategically. Without a strategy, implementing a foundation-wide performance system is next to impossible and making the case for impact challenging, at best. Consider this. When we at CEP looked at the grantmaking of a hundred and forty-two large foundations, the median grant size was fifty thousand dollars. Fifty thousand dollars. It seems highly improbable to me that a foundation that makes hundreds or thousands of small grants across myriad programs, with vague goals, will be able to make a case for its impact, even accepting (which I do) that we shouldn't get hung up on causality. What's left are anecdotes. And anecdotes won't cut it.

At the other end of the spectrum is this response from Tim Walter of the Association of Small Foundations:

Communicating impact presumes a rational dialogue and decision-making process, and while no one is arguing that it's bad to be rational, we'd be naïve to think that it's sufficient to generate public or political support for foundations. Emotional, cultural, financial, and ideological biases are at play. A rational argument about "impact" may give one victory in a debate tournament or before a judge, but not in politics. Foundations should stop trying to win good press in The Economist and start trying to get more coverage in People magazine's "Heroes Among Us" column.

Speaking personally, I favor the softer side of things. Probably because I work with an audience that is driven more by human drama then by long-term analysis (the media). I have to say that when I read Tim Walter's response I nearly let out a “WAHOO!” He nailed it.

If you haven't yet read Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, do yourself a favor and order a copy right now. It's a brilliant book about the power of compelling ideas and its lessons are applicable to any industry. On page 165, the authors describe a Carnegie Mellon University study that put this issue of mind vs. heart to the test. Researchers wanted to see how people responded to an opportunity to make a charitable contribution to an abstract cause versus a charitable contribution to a single person.

After making sure that each test participant was holding five one-dollar bills (payment for doing something that was irrelevant to the experiment), participants were handed one of two versions of a charity request letter for Save the Children. One version featured statistics about the magnitude of the problems facing children in Africa; the other gave an account of a single young African girl. On average, the analytical appeal brought in $1.14 from each participant, the story-based appeal brought in an average of $2.38 -- more than twice as much. What's even more interesting is that when the two approaches were combined into the same letter, the average donation dropped back down to $1.43.

I’m certainly not advocating for stories without data or data without stories, but I do believe that to truly convey impact among diverse and widespread audiences we need to appeal first to the heart.

-- Rich Polt

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Posted by Phil Buchanan  |   January 17, 2008 at 11:53 AM


I agree that stories – anecdotes – can be incredibly powerful. The point I was making in the publication you quote is that stories alone are insufficient, even dangerous. We need to understand the data about what works and what doesn't (in light of whatever your goals may be).

In Made to Stick, the authors point out that false stories, if they're compelling enough, can become accepted as true. That's incredibly dangerous – as I think the authors would agree.

If philanthropic dollars are spent to support interventions that have been shown not to work, or that are even counter-productive, that's a big problem. If foundations operate without feedback mechanisms to understand how they're viewed by grantees, stakeholders, and those whose lives they seek to improve, they'll be isolated and less likely to maximize their impact.

We should look for the anecdotes that illustrate and make compelling conclusions that are supported by data. The data often won't be conclusive, or perfect, and that's fine. But it's folly to think foundations can maximize their impact (and shouldn't that be the goal?) without information. What we need is dispassionate analysis and passionate commitment to creating the most possible impact. These two forces can be complementary. They need not be in tension.


Posted by Rich Polt  |   January 17, 2008 at 12:24 PM

Thanks for clarifying your point Phil. I completely agree with what you’re saying. The end goal must be maximizing impact, and that can only be achieved with solid methodologies and through analysis (both quantitative and qualitative). Anecdotes alone will not provide an organization with the insight they need to grow and get better at what they do.

The nuanced difference between what you are saying and what I am saying (I think) is that you’re talking about achieving real impact, and I’m talking about effectively communicating that impact to constituencies in the most compelling manner.

The question in the PAI study asks why foundations struggle to DEMONSTRATE impact. Now that I think about it, the question itself may have been a bit ambiguous. You are defining the word “demonstrate” as actually proving whether the foundation’s activities were impactful. I read the question as why do foundations struggle to communicate impact. That is to say, how do foundations demonstrate impact externally once it has been achieved?

When it comes to actually communicating impact, I feel that appealing to the heart is a powerful place to start … amplified of course by using solid numbers to support a compelling narrative.


Posted by Phil Buchanan  |   January 17, 2008 at 01:27 PM

Rich --

Got it, thanks. I certainly agree that once impact is achieved -- and there is data to back it up -- communicating it requires great story-telling. (I do think we were interpreting the question a bit differently.)

I also think that there is sometimes an assumption that lots of impact is being created, and that foundations just need to communicate it. And I'd argue that sometimes that's not as true we might hope. My emphasis would be more on helping foundations figure out how to achieve greater impact because I think that, relative to communicating it, is the hard part. But I imagine communications professionals might disagree with me on that.

Thanks, Rich.


Posted by phil  |   January 17, 2008 at 04:08 PM

I note that Tim Walter of Assoc of Small Foundations is talking from experience of family foundation without staff. They may be more like "givers" than like "grant-makers" in their decision-making, not so "professionalized." They may well, in some cases, want the heart connection, the active engagement, and the recognition in their local communities. Their grants may be modest, and their hope of sweeping impact equally modest. They may be want to get bogged down in the bureaucratic side of metrics and management. They are doing it without pay in many cases. Has to be fulfilling and fun, and not overly cumbersome.

Posted by Mitch Nauffts  |   January 17, 2008 at 05:23 PM

Rich, thanks for the stimulating post. And Phil, thanks for responding in such a thoughtful manner.

That other Phil, the always provocative Cubeta (www.gifthub.org), respects (and, I'm sure, admires) both of you, but he thinks you're both a bit...misguided. As he wrote on his blog in response to this thread earlier today:

"All of this, though, feels too businesslike, whether it be metrics or PR. Here is Martin Luther King's call to action in the last speech he ever gave, the day before he was gunned down in Memphis:

'Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these days of challenge to make of America what it ought to be....'

"Facing dogs and mace, and as it turned out a sniper's rifle, [MLK] called for unity, peaceful protest, and justice. What we now seek are metrics and PR. How could such piddling protocols ever even hope to make America what it ought to be?"

Is he right? In focusing on the trees, have we lost sight of the forest?

Posted by Rich Polt  |   January 18, 2008 at 08:45 AM

I can see how a discussion about PR and metrics will take on a business-like feel. These are, after all, disciplines upon which many organizations (for profit and nonprofit) rely. My sense is that Phil Cubeta was not trying to undermine our dialogue in his post – rather to assert his observation that the conversation felt trivial in light of the larger issues that philanthropy and social justice carry. That is fair.

It was certainly not the intention of my original post to suggest that PR and/or measurement are substitutes for acts of loving kindness or standing with great determination in the face of overwhelming odds to make the world a better place. That said, I didn’t appreciate the way he marginalized the disciplines of PR and metrics by referring to them as “piddling protocols.” The issue of the mind vs. the heart represent two ends of an archetypical spectrum – a spectrum no doubt considered by many of our great thinkers, communicators, and leaders. Just as a painter uses color or a musician uses sound, orators use communications and scientists use metrics. I’ve spent many years advising others how to be more effective with their communications to achieve greater purpose. I truly hope my efforts have not been piddling.

Posted by Rich Polt  |   January 21, 2008 at 06:51 AM

A colleague of mine, Anne Ellinger who is Founder of Bolder Giving, responded to my blog post by email. She admitted that she is “in another century” when it comes to blogging, and asked if I would post her response to the thread. Thanks for the comment Anne! It follows:

“I certainly had thoughts and reactions to your topic, mostly based on my experience with individual donors: that some want a giving plan that is very left-brained, carefully planned, strategic based on certain measures… and others want a plan that is from the heart, often more spontaneous, intuitive, personal… and I think both have a place, thought the latter style is rarely validated. (On our Bolder Giving website, Gigi Coyle’s giving story http://boldergiving.org/inspiring_stories/profile.php?id=81 for a great example.) I also smiled at the second person you quoted saying foundations should have their stories in People Magazine. Did you know that three of Bolder Giving’s stories were in the “Heros Among Us” section in People’s Dec. 24th issue?

Posted by Andrea  |   January 22, 2008 at 05:12 PM

I don't see how giving influenced by the mind and the heart are necessarily mutually exclusive. The infamous "metrics," as several of the recent post accuse, can be used as a compelling reason to give from the heart. At Duke Children's Hospital, for example, focus on outcome measurements such as "patient satisfaction," and "propensity to recommend DCH to others" resulted in increased giving. The issue is finding the right measures that relate to the organization's mission statement - if these measures accurately reflect the mission, then their fulfillment will be targeting the heart as they move towards improving lives, communities, etc. Additional ideas are presented in our whitepaper at www.spm-nonprofit.com.

Posted by Michael Moody  |   January 26, 2008 at 12:01 AM

I'm so glad for this discussion. Sorry I found it a bit late (or "late" in relative internet time). The last comment raises what I think are 2 essential points: 1) that metrics need to be driven by mission, and 2) that stories (when collected systematically) and matters of the heart like "satisfaction" can sometimes be part of the information we use in measurement, or in what the original post called "rigorous evaluation." Of course this means converting "stories" into data, which makes them lose some of their emotional power (at least until they get pulled out as case studies in the Annual Report). But that's ok. The greater downside, as some on the PAI panel point out, is that this sort of evaluation is particularly costly, if you want to do it right. And it takes time. Think of the time and money needed to really demonstrating the full "impact" of early childhood enrichment grants, for instance.

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