It’s All in the Numbers Part 1: 3 Tweaks You Can Use Today

by Emily Snoek


Numbers can be a nonprofit’s best friend. They can: Tell a story all on their own, provide clear evidence for the need that you’re meeting, and/or speak to a donor’s emotional side. But what kind of story they tell depends on how you use those numbers.

Luckily, there are small tweaks you can use to make your story more compelling using the numbers you already have. Behavioral economics has a lot to say about how people understand and react to numbers. Let’s jump into Part 1.

3 Tweaks You Can Use Today

1. Be sensitive to scope insensitivity.

Consider the following statements:

Millions of women in the United States have experienced rape.

1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape.

Which of these statements is more powerful? They tell the exact same story. While it’s easy to understand that millions of women is a lot, it’s extremely difficult to visualize a million in your head. Therefore, it’s harder for you to make a connection to it. But you can imagine 1 in 6 women. The image below really drives this home. Regardless of how each person individually experiences the gravity of these statements, the “1 in 6 women” statistic stands out far more than “millions of women.”

This is because of scope insensitivity. One study showed that an exponential increase in scope creates a linear increase in the donor’s willingness-to-pay. Three groups of subjects were asked how much they would pay to save (2,000/ 20,000/ 200,000) migrating birds from drowning in uncovered oil ponds. The groups responded with the following on average: $78, $80, and $88. People can’t easily visualize 20,000 lives, let alone 200,000 or 2 million, so they don’t increase their donations by nearly the magnitude of the problem.

Action Item: Keep your scope small and practical so people are able to visualize and thus be sensitive to it.

2. Pick the right frame.

The art of framing your numbers correctly is related to scope insensitivity but it’s slightly different.  For example, instead of saying, “9 in 10 people have access to clean water”, Charity Water says “1 in 10 people lack access to clean water”.

If you’re anything like me and you hear that 9 in 10 people have access to clean water, you might think that sounds pretty good. But if you hear that 1 in 10 people lack access to clean water, your mind focuses on that 1 person out of 10 who doesn’t have access to clean water. Again, these numbers tell the exact same story. But framing makes one far more powerful than the other. When leveraging this theory it is also important to frame messages in a way your audience can comprehend and relate to.

A good example would be: By making a donation today you will provide 10 kids with a life-saving vaccine. A not-so-good example would be: Your donation will help us reach our goal of providing vaccines to 10,000 kids.

Action Item: Once you have a sensitive scope, consider how to frame your numbers so they tug at the heartstrings and are easy-to-understand.

3. Target people’s aversion to loss.

In a now-famous study from 1981, psychologists Dr. Kahneman and Dr. Tversky found evidence for the concept of loss aversion. Loss aversion indicates that losses feel far worse to us than equivalent gains. Their experiment asked a group of subjects to imagine an unusual disease was about to break out in the United States that was expected to kill 600 people. They had participants pick between two different public health programs to combat it. Both programs had the same expected outcome of 200 lives saved, so from a rational and evaluative standpoint neither program is better than the other. They ran the study twice, first with a gain-framing and then with a loss-framing, which you can see below (gain-framing on the left, loss-framing on the right).

The loss framing switched people’s preferences from Program A/C (which offered certainty that 200 people would be saved and 400 people would die) to Program B/D (which offered a ⅓ probability that everyone would be saved and a ⅔ possibility that everyone would die). Again, all of these programs offer the exact same expected outcome of 200 lives saved and the change from the first study to the second study is simply the loss framing.

Action Item: Consider changing the language on your website and fundraising materials to emphasize how people’s donations can avoid loss, rather than what they help gain.

And that’s it! 3 small tweaks you can use today to tell your nonprofit’s story even better, using the numbers you already have. There are 3 more small tweaks coming in Part 2 so stay tuned and make sure to sign up for our email list if you’re not already.

For more information on harnessing the power of behavioral economics to tell your nonprofit’s story better, send our CEO Nate an email!


  • Code Llama’s Impact on Developers
    Read More
  • Let’s Talk About Python’s Future
    Read More
  • Unlocking the Power of Behavioral Science, User-Centered Design, and AI for Digital Success
    Read More