The Role of Data vs. Storytelling: Insights from the 2014 IEDC Annual Conference

Throughout the 2014 International Economic Development Council’s Annual Conference, there were two major themes that seemed to emerge from session to session: the importance of data: collecting it, understanding it, and communicating it; and the importance of community “intangibles” that data simply can’t capture. At first glance, it might seem like economic developers are receiving two disparate messages, “You must have good data, and lots of it, for successful economic development,” versus, “You must have a unique story to tell, with great quality of place, for successful economic development.”

So how do we marry these two ideas together cohesively? I heard the answer during the session, Economic Development in 2024: Predictions of Future Best Practices. This session had a town hall format, and the audience posed lots of great questions to the panelists. One of those questions was, “With the growing availability of data online, and the increasing focus on the importance of high quality data driving economic development, what will be the role of the economic development professionals in 10 years?” The panelist’s answer really struck a chord for me:

“Do you have an expert storyteller on staff? If not, go hire one! Data doesn’t matter unless you can tell the story that makes it matter.” ­- Tim Terrentine, Vice President, Southwest Michigan First

Being able to tell the story of your data isn’t just the key to economic development; it’s also the key to funding economic development. One of the very first steps in every capital campaign that Convergent manages is to develop an ROI Report for our clients. We develop a detailed analysis of the impact that their future efforts will have on the local community, assuming they are properly funded and able to meet their goals. In some instances, we recognize that there is a need to build the EDOs credibility with potential funders in order to raise more money. In those instances, we’ll also develop an ROI Report highlighting the impact of their previous economic development efforts. There is a lot of great data in these ROI Reports, but we are always careful to remind our clients that these reports are just one tool to be utilized in a successful capital campaign. As Principal Tom Ralser likes to caution, “This is not a golden ticket that you can simply mail out and then sit back and wait for the money to come rolling in.”

The story behind the data has to be told. What role does the EDO play in making these projected impacts a reality? How does this data relate to each of the individual funders you are soliciting? Just like the role of a good economic developer is to tell the story that makes their community’s data matter, it is the role of the professional fundraiser to tell the story that makes your impacts matter to funders. When done skillfully, the numbers contained within an ROI Report become a story that funders are willing to invest in to bring to life.