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Is that a fact?

Following the rise of 'fake news' and with some charities statistics coming under scrutiny recently, our Managing Director shares insight on how and why you should be sure about what you're saying.
Michele Madden

Heading off to meet with a client the other day I put on my ‘smart’ jacket. Luckily I looked in the mirror before I left, and realised that with a missing button, ripped lining and shiny cuffs it was no longer the quality item it had once been. Out of date and a bit shabby, I was inadvertently giving a completely different impression than intended.  This reminded me that we sometimes need to double check things we rely upon – whether that’s the smart jacket, the information sources, or facts we use every day.

As a nerdy researcher, one of my favourite radio programmes is “More or Less”. If you don’t know it, it’s a weekly programme on Radio 4 about statistics (stick with me here). The basic premise of the programme is to question whether the numbers and statistics that are presented to us in the news and political debate are correct. The general public send in ‘facts’ or statistics that they either don’t understand or suspect are not true, and these are explored on the programme to see if they stand up to scrutiny.

Worryingly, in the last few months I’ve seen two of my interests collide, as a number of charities or issues that we work on have featured on this programme. Basically, members of the public have contacted the programme questioning basic facts that had been put out by charities to drive support to their cause. The issues have been varied: whether selective schools improve social mobility, the numbers of stray cats, changes in childhood cancer rates, or deaths from dementia. In some cases the facts were proved to be correct, but in others they were wrong, or worse, no-one within the charity could even identify the source of the fact.

Numbers, ratios and percentages are an intrinsic part of getting our message across in a persuasive way. These might be about the impact of your organisation, the number of beneficiaries with a particular health condition, or how effective your fundraising is. But when budgets are tight and time is short it’s easy to keep using data that exists or repeat ‘accepted’ knowledge. Being caught out by a donor, because you haven’t noticed that a ‘fact’ is out-of-date, is not only embarrassing but preventable because its something you are in control of. So go back to basics and consciously stop and check that your facts are still true.

1. Check your facts!

Go through your key documents (website, leaflets, blurb for funding proposals) and check any numbers or statistics you are regularly using. What’s the source? Are they still accurate?

2. Get some new facts

If there is a gap, or if the numbers need to be refreshed - actively do some new research or analysis to keep the numbers fresh and up to date. If you can’t afford to do new research or you are aware the numbers are weak, be clear and open about this fact.

3. Make sure everyone knows the facts

Many charities produce a ‘key facts’ document, or credit card sized fact sheet. When you know that the data on these documents is correct its essential be make sure that everyone with an external facing role has access to them and knows them inside out.

Right, I’m off to the sales to get myself a new jacket…


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