Lies, Damn Lies, and Election Season Statistics: What Nonprofits Can Learn from the Use of Numbers in Politics

One of the disheartening casualties of this election season—in addition to run-of-the-mill civil discourse—has been the judicious use of data and statistics. Candidates of all political stripes wield figures (but not necessarily facts) to advocate for their positions and policies. And they do so because they know how most of us operate: We defer to the authority of numbers. Figures, data, and statistics seem to carry an air of irrefutability. When candidates cite dollar figures and percentages during their stump speeches and debates, many of us unconsciously think, “Well, someone’s calculated those amounts… you can’t really argue with data.”

But, as it turns out, you can argue with data—loudly and vigorously, as we have seen over the past few months! And because nonprofits increasingly intersect with the political world through advocacy and relationship building, organizations can learn a great deal from candidates’ use—or misuse, as the case may be—of data and statistics in the political realm. Here are a few key lessons nonprofits can take away from election season statistics:

1. Just because certain figures or percentages support our position doesn’t make them true. We all bear the responsibility of being “reasonable skeptics” when we encounter information we believe is share-worthy. Sure, it’s great to have data to support our organization’s positions, but has that information been vetted? Have we checked that the source is reliable and doesn’t have an overt agenda? Our national math anxiety can cause us to give numerical information an unchecked sense of power. Knowing how to interpret and assess statistics can equip us to be better consumers of data, which in turn makes us better informed advocates for our causes.

 

2. Assume you’ll be fact-checked. News and social media outlets have practically made a cottage industry out of fact checking, whether of national-level candidates or local politicians. Needless to say, avoiding a pants-on-fire rating regarding your nonprofit’s assertions is critical to maintaining the good faith of supporters and the legitimacy of your organization. Operate under the assumption that information you distribute will be checked for its truthfulness.

3. Be ready to cite your sources. Sometimes your organization’s communications will require formal citations. Source information is a given for infographics, research studies, or policy briefs. But in other forms of outreach, such as e-mail blasts, social media posts, public service announcements, or fundraising events, time and space often don’t allow for nitty-gritty citations. It can be tempting to think it’s not important to track sources in these circumstances. Be prepared to cite them anyway. Your organization is accountable for the information it disseminates in whatever format, and you’ll want to be ready for inquiries, whether from skeptics or curious supporters.

 

4. The plural of anecdote is not data… Those of us in the social sector love using stories and anecdotes to make a point. And this makes sense, because we are hardwired to relate to human stories. Collected anecdotes can certainly help illustrate a theme or provide qualitative depth. But we have to be careful about extrapolating individual stories to make sweeping generalizations about others, particularly when those generalizations involve group identity or social status. Rigorous studies involving significant numbers of people are much better fodder for identifying trends and patterns. As a fellow evaluation consultant rightly notes, the plural of anecdote is not data, it’s…anecdotes.

5. …However, an anecdote, when combined with reliable data, can be a powerful force for good. Stories plus data represent a 1+1=3 scenario: together, each is more effective than either is alone. Stories are the hook, the component that resonates with our emotions and shared sense of humanity. Data appeal to our analytic side, the part of us that wants to understand the scale, scope, and urgency of an issue. Together, they deliver a one-two punch that helps bridge the gap between sympathy and action. Although he’s not a politician, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof often writes on issues of political significance, and is masterful at combining stories with data, as demonstrated in this piece on strategies for breaking the poverty cycle.

How has your organization used data and statistics to strengthen its work? How have you combined stories and numbers to convey your organization’s impact?