PSGA Ken's Corner

Observations and advice on grant writing from the other side of the desk

Using statistics

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I just returned from a trip to the most dangerous city in the nation, Tukwila. That is, it’s dangerous if you believe the latest rankings done by Safewise®, a firm that sells home security system. A lot of local media ran the story that Tukwila as the nation’s most dangerous city, and it even made the banner on some national news services.

Most of the local coverage was tongue-in-cheek. Locals who know the area had a hard time believing that Tukwila is a dangerous place. And a quick look at the study’s website reveals major flaw in the study; the statistics mixed property crimes and major crimes—a shoplifting incident is counted the same as an assault. Then the study simply divided the number of crime reports by the city’s population.

Even if you didn’t know about Tukwila, you might question the way the report was put together. But if you know that Tukwila includes SouthCenter Westgate Mall and the retail areas around it, you understand why Tukwila ended up high on this list. Every day thousands of staff and shoppers come to area. And most of the crime reports, such as minor property crimes, are among the daily visitors and not Tukwila residents.

This report reminded me of an LOI I read a few years ago. A housing group wanted to expand its work to a neighboring county. Beyond stating that desire to expand, the LOI didn’t say why those services were needed in the neighboring county. I looked up easily available census statistics and found that the homeownership rate in the new county was actually a few percentage points higher in the new area than in the county the organization currently served.

How are they related? Both misused statistics, even the housing group that didn’t cite any. Failing to mention an easily available and seemingly relevant statistic raises many questions. Did the organization omit the statistic or was it even aware of it?
And statistic aside, why did they think they needed to expand to the new county? Was this about the agency wanting to get bigger or about meeting a real need? What if the organization had begun its LOI with something like this?

We have many people who travel thirty or forty miles one way from our neighboring county for our counseling services or attending classes we offer. While that area’s homeownership rate is slightly higher than the area we currently serve, that rate isn’t the whole story. The people who come to us need our help because they own homes that are older. Curious about that, we looked at census statistics and found that more than 25% of the homes in that area were built before 1960. And in rural communities older homes usually represent an even a larger share of the affordable housing. As a result, many low-income homeowners need our key services such as credit counseling, education about home maintenance, and access to financing. We believe that opening a new office in this area will allow us to serve even more families that need our services.

As you read that passage, what moves you—the statistics or the story about why the homeownership program is needed? In my experience, the story will capture most people’s attention, including funders. It illustrates two key principles for using statistics. First, it doesn’t ignore a basic statistic that appears to counter to what you are advocating; instead it neutralizes it. Second, it uses a supporting statistic to expand upon the premise. The idea that low-income homeowners come to you for services is given more validity with the statistic that over 25% of the new county’s housing stock is old.

The key is balancing story with statistics. Know the relevant statistics, and use them in a way that supports your story. Don’t throw out a statistic and expect that a reader—funder—will jump to the same conclusion you do. Lead with your observations and assertions.

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Author: Ken Ristine

40 years experience in the nonprofit sector; Senior Program Officer for a Pacific Northwest family foundation. Co-author with Goodwin Deacon of the recently published Grantsmanship for the Genius.

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