3 Impactful Ways to Make Numbers Count in Nonprofit Messaging



Committing to lifelong learning is an important strategy for every nonprofit organization and its staff. As the world changes there are new needs and new solutions to be discovered. This month we will share lessons and resources to keep us all on track.




By Jason Fry and Lora Dow

“We do hard, often painstaking work to generate the right numbers to make a good decision – but all that work is wasted if those numbers never take root in the minds of the decision makers.” From "Making Numbers Count"

"Making Numbers Count" by Chip Heath and Karla Starr challenges readers to make numbers come to life through a variety of deceptively simple techniques.

For years, our team has been encouraging our clients to do much the same: “Move from Numbers to Names” and “It’s Not About Dollars, It’s About Change.”

Creating A Nonprofit Message with Small Impactful Numbers

While adding stories is a good first step to help make a message more memorable, here are some of our favorite suggestions to increase your audience's understanding and emotion around the numbers you present.

Really large numbers quickly become abstract. While we can intellectually understand that one number is larger than another, we can lose perspective on how much larger. In an example from the book, the authors compared two sentences.

  1. “In its first 7 months, 7,857 troops died out of 13,095.” vs
  2. “We had 600 deaths per 1,000 troops.”*

Same figures, but making them smaller (and rounding them) made them easier to imagine, increasing the emotional impact of the phrase.* It seems counterintuitive but the impact could be increased even more by making the numbers even smaller:

“Out of every 5 soldiers, 3 would die.”

When you’re sharing data, be it a financial report or a fundraising appeal, consider how you might make numbers smaller to increase their impact.

Related Post: Emergency vs Urgency

Make It Personal

We often talk about large numbers when we are raising money, constructing budgets or tabulating community needs. When we can help someone experience a number viscerally, getting a gut sense of what the impact of a number is, they can be much more motivated to take action.

Here are some great examples from the book:

  1. Instead of "Only .025% of the world's water is drinkable by humans and animals.", try "If the world's water were put into a gallon jug, humans would only be able to drink less than 20 drops of it." or
  2. You could say "A single M&M has 4 calories." or you could make it personal by saying "In order to burn off the calories in a single M&M, you'd have to walk 2 flights of stairs." or
  3. To make statistics like "A very small percentage of Fortune 500 CEOs are women." have more impact try "Among Fortune 500 CEOs, there are more men named James than there are women."
Related Post: From Numbers to Names

Consider Feeling and Try it For Yourself

“We are no more likely to know what to feel about a number than we are to know what to think about a number. And feeling is important because in a world filled with things that need to be accomplished, our feelings about our alternatives lead us to which one we will choose and how fervently we will pursue it and respond to setbacks.” From "Making Numbers Count"

Thinking about your own descriptions of your organization and how you use numbers to describe it, how do they make you feel? It's made us ponder some of the ways we've seen numbers used, and maybe some ideas for how we could shift the delivery to elicit a more emotional response.

  1. Instead of saying "As many as 38% of kids in elementary school will lose 2-3 months of reading and math comprehension over the course of the summer, which puts them behind their peers at the start of the next school year." try writing "If we added up the cumulative loss of learning that happens each summer from Kindergarten through 12th grade, 1 in every 3 students would still be in junior high while their peers would have already graduated high school." or
  2. You may normally say "250 families are currently experiencing homelessness in Boise, Idaho." but consider writing "In Boise, Idaho we could fill one of our entire elementary schools with the number of families currently experiencing homelessness."
"Making Numbers Count" is a fun, easy read that can help anyone – from a fundraiser to a CFO to a board member – become a more persuasive communicator.

*The second version was written by Florence Nightingale to rally support for troops on the front lines of the Crimean War. The first version was in a military field report.

Related Post: Entering the Unknown

nonprofit strategy guide


Posted by Jason Fry
Jason Fry

Written by Jason Fry

Jason brings more than 20 years of working with nonprofits building impactful programs, establishing dynamic community partnerships, and creating capacity for greater impact. Jason understands the power of generosity, and how it can unlock a community's potential. Jason’s experience and understanding of the challenges facing nonprofit organizations makes him an ideal partner and catalyst for change.

Our Latest Posts