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

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Recently, I became the proud owner of a 2011 Toyota Sienna mini-van, making my transformation to suburban dad complete. The vehicle came with three free months of XM radio which is really really awesome! When I'm not listening to "Hair Nation" (that would be 80s rock), I'm madly flipping through the other stations. And I've noticed that many are simply recycling old content ... like the American Top 40 shows from the 70s and 80s. So it's in this spirit of recycling old content that I'm reprinting this blog post, which I first wrote for PhilanTopic back in January of 2008. It examines the way we communicate impact, and it's a topic that never seems to get old.

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.