Reporting back: Counting results, and which results count

A letter accompanying the annual report from the US Fund for UNICEF manages in the space of three paragraphs to get its appeal both absolutely right and completely wrong. 

Right: "For the first time in history, the death rate for children under 5 from preventable causes has dropped below 10 million a year to 9.7 million."  ["Here’s what we do, and we’re winning!"]

Wrong: "The first year of our campaign was incredibly successful, netting more than $3 million towards our goal of $6.5 million by 2010."  ["Here’s how we pay for it, and we’re not even halfway there yet."]

The error?  Putting the money in paragraph 1 and the children in paragraph 2.

Being halfway through a 4-year campaign in a single year is great; but that’s not the kind of progress donors care about.  Success in raising money is just a means to the end of saving children’s lives.  So saving children’s lives (probably complete with boldface) is what belongs in the lead.

Why isn’t it?  For two reasons, probably neither of them conscious:

1) UNICEF saves lives; the US Fund for UNICEF raises money.  If you work for the fundraising group, your goal is precisely to get from $3 million to $6.5 million, and that’s what you think about day-in day-out under enormous pressure with scarce resources, and when you look back over the year you have reason to congratulate yourself on how you’re managing it.  It’s hard to remember (probably even hard to acknowledge) that for the most part your audience doesn’t care about what you do–it cares about what other people do with the money you’ve worked so brutally hard to extract.  Still, any good fundraiser–and these people are obviously top-notch–bears in mind that the reader’s priorities trump the writer’s every time.  (To which end, all fundraising writers should have a sign over their desks: "So what?")

2) [The Nonprofiteer speculates] Recent attention to the issue of evaluation/assessment/measurement among nonprofits has created a demand for information that will always outstrip the supply.  That is, we’ve succeeded in producing among donors the constant nagging feeling that if they really knew what was going on, they’d feel disappointed/ripped off/ill-served/justified in not giving.  (See Charity Governance’s clear-eyed piece about the Red Cross for an account of the consequences of that success.)  So the hardest of hard numbers–300,000 saved children’s lives–raises more questions than it answers.  Is 300K out of 10M a good "save" percentage?  Can you maintain that momentum, or were you just picking low-hanging fruit?  And what was your cost per life?  Can you reduce that? 

In Geneva and New York and among scholars of international poverty reduction, these are serious questions whose serious answers are being sought; among fundraisers in Chicago and Kansas City and Denver, they’re just a cloud of black flies between you and your prospective donors.  Whereas reports of dollars appear complete unto themselves (inevitable consequence of a capitalist upbringing).  If you say, "We have more than $3 million," no one will ask, "Why aren’t you using the yuan?" 

Naturally you’d rather put the solid, the unquestionable, the unchallengeable, in Paragraph 1.  But take it from the Nonprofiteer: unless you use that lead paragraph to brag about saving 300,000 children’s lives, there won’t be any donors to question and challenge you.

In other words: Damn the detailed metrics.  Full speed ahead!

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3 Responses to “Reporting back: Counting results, and which results count”

  1. Tom Durso Says:

    Yeah, for nonprofits metrics are important — but the mission is paramount. And demonstrating that the mission (in UNICEF’s case, saving lives) is succeeding should help in the metrics department.

  2. robert guinto Says:

    The report just goes to show that size does not improve the quality of a reports message. Proof reading does.

  3. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Tom: You’re right, mission comes first–and in this case we mean “first” literally. If you’re saving lives, everything else (how many, how much per life, etc.) will fall into place in the donor’s mind.

    Robert: Brevity certainly was the soul of wit in UNICEF’s three-paragraph report–but proofreading wouldn’t have fixed what I thought was wrong with it. I’m arguing not simply for careful composition but for a different mind-set: “Tell me what you do for the world’s kids, not what you do for the agency’s bottom line.”

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