All Numbers are GUILTY Until Proven Innocent

All Numbers are GUILTY Until Proven Innocent


4 July 2023


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Happy Independence Day! I toyed with the idea that I should perhaps skip this week, or post on Wednesday instead. And I decided that since it was ready to go, I should just post it anyway. Can’t have a First Thing Tuesday posted on Wednesday. So I hope that you are finding this on Wednesday or Thursday, having enjoyed yourself over the Holiday.


I regularly run a group exercise designed to get people talking extemporaneously about why participating in land trust / conservation work is important to them. One of the observations I ask them to consider upon reflection is how few numbers they use to describe importance. There will be some who don’t use numbers because they don’t know them. But most people don’t use numbers when they are speaking, because numbers don’t help them tell a story.


So why do we lean into numbers when we’re writing? We use numbers all the time. We depend on them to communicate size and volume – and weight in hopes that they convey importance. Most of the time, however, they simply serve as filler.

  • 20,000 volunteer hours
  • 500 school kids
  • 300-acre farm
  • 240-acre woodland or wetland
  • 160 new members
  • 40% growth
  • 25th Anniversary


What are we trying to communicate here?

The problem gets worse when the numbers have too many significant digits.

  • 20,536 volunteer hours
  • 507 school kids
  • 5-acre farm
  • 268-acre woodland or wetland
  • 162 new members
  • 5% growth


So, here’s the communications question: Am I more impressed that the wetland was 268 acres than I would be that it was 168? Does the number actually matter at all?


The problem with all numbers is that they are only good for communications when they are compared to other numbers. For example, 240 acres sounds like a lot, unless you’re in Texas.

Or Montana.

Or Oregon.

Or LOTS of other places.

And don’t get me started about how few people actually have any clue how big an acre is!


One group proudly boasted that they logged 50,000 volunteer hours last year. The number was impressive for them, BECAUSE they knew the context. But I had no context at all. Was that a lot? It turns out that I had recently worked with another organization that logged 95,000 volunteer hours, so instead of communicating importance, they ended up giving me cause to wonder why they couldn’t do more.


Your use of numbers gets slightly more effective when YOU can provide the context. 50,000 volunteer hours would be more impressive if it were compared with just 30,000 the year before. Six conservation easements closed in 2022 would be more impressive if you only closed six during the previous five years. It would be even better still if the differences could be expressed graphically.

But you would still have a communications problem. Because, by the time you work through all the context part, you’ve made the story about the number instead of about the impact.


Numbers serve as data points. As elements of an intellectual case. Which is fine, but people are not inspired to give from an intellectual base. They give from emotion. At best, they use intellectual cases to justify what they have already decided to do.

In other words, it’s completely natural for us to lean on numbers. They just don’t help.


So go back through your appeal letters, newsletter articles, and Facebook posts and highlight every number. Then ask yourself, “Do I really need that number? Is that number really important to the story?”

Most of them won’t be. Take ‘em out.

Replace the numbers and their context with good stories that illustrate impact instead of trying to quantify it. In other words,

  • Don’t tell me how many kids enjoyed trail hikes this summer. Tell me about one kid.
  • Don’t tell me about how many farms you have protected. Tell me about one farm and the family whose dream of that land being in production forever will now be realized.
  • Don’t tell me about how many volunteer hours you logged. Tell me about what it feels like to hike on that new section of trail.
  • Don’t tell me about 260 acres of wetlands. Tell me about one frog that has a happy home.


Don’t tell me about numbers. Tell me about IMPACT. Your writing will be much more powerful, compelling, and persuasive.

And it will help you raise more money.


Cheers, and have a great week!




PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


Photo by Ray Hennessy courtesy


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  • Florence Siebert
    Posted at 11:04h, 05 July

    Impact vs. Outcome…Yes!

  • Creal Zearing
    Posted at 10:41h, 05 July

    Building on David’s comment, I think that the tendency to lean on numbers is because we’re asked so often to track and report on those stats for grant reports. It ends up being information that we have on hand that’s easier to spit out for a donor report than coming up with and writing an impact story. And we think if grantors want the info then it must be important enough to share with the individual donor. If only grantors required more impact stories than numbers, my life would be so much easier!

  • Carol Abrahamzon
    Posted at 09:24h, 05 July

    David Allan and Bob Ross – both smart fundraisers who get it!

  • David Lillard
    Posted at 08:22h, 04 July

    Indeed, save the numbers for grant reports that require them. I do love Robert Ross’s use of numbers of numbers as interpretation, though. A hippo? I’ll never forget that.

  • Robert Ross
    Posted at 07:45h, 04 July

    Great advice. One technique: convert numbers into something meaningful: TLC has preserved 28,000 acres, that’s twice the size of Manhattan Island. Everyone in northern New Jersey gets that message. Or, in my guide role: a blue whale eats four tons of krill a day — the size of a hippo. It can be fun — then test on your audience.