Of course, knowing the incidence and prevalence of a problem is certainly not a cure-all for solving all of your coalition’s woes, nor is it the only information worth collecting. In the worst case, the information can actually mislead people who are trying to understand the problem. As Mark Twain was fond of saying, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

When you are collecting or speaking about your data, be sure to:

  • Obtain your data from enough people to make it worthwhile. Or, if you are using previously gathered information, find out how many people were studied. As a rule of thumb, don’t determine a rate from a population of less than 30 people – and although that’s the smallest number that can be used to generate most statistics, it’s probably nowhere near enough to give an accurate picture. There just aren’t enough people for your data to be credible. If you did a voluntary survey on drug use among high school students and only got 5 respondents, your results might vary widely from the truth.

For example, you may have had 5 students who don’t use drugs at all, (There are no drugs in our schools!) or maybe four of the students were friends who all smoke marijuana regularly (80% of our students use drugs on a regular basis!) Probably neither of these statistics is close to the truth. The sample population simply wasn’t large enough to get a true estimate.

  • When you are giving a rate, never forget to give it, as the definition states, in terms of another measured quantity.

For example, just saying, 43 students are smokers, doesn’t give the listener enough information to really understand the problem. Is it 43 students out of 50? Or out of 5000? Always be sure to give your information in context. A confused listener is not someone who will be helpful to your cause.

  • As helpful as statistics can be, they don’t ever tell the whole story. People relate to individual stories: the friendly neighborhood mechanic who died of lung cancer, the fourth-grader who was killed in a drive by shooting. Just the facts might be good police work; but for your organization’s work, never forget the people behind those statistics.


There is a story about a group of birds who took a class to learn to fly. They all attended the class faithfully for weeks, and then, when it was over, they all tucked their diplomas under their wings and walked back home. So use the information you have found to further your cause, and fly with it. There’s no question that changing our communities for the better is a tough battle. But by being able to determine the magnitude of the problem, you’ve made a powerful first step towards winning the war.

Janette Nagy
Reference: Community Tool Box