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Tips for Communicating Impact with Data Visualization

Monday, September 19, 2016
Guest Writers
Nonprofit Technology
Rebecca Galloway

With the avalanche of information in everyone’s social media feed and email inbox, visuals make a huge difference in getting a nonprofit’s message across. You’re competing with so many different types of content: longform articles, cat videos, Trump memes, etc. If you need to focus people’s attention long enough to explain a complex issue, convey impact or talk about new developments in the sector, data visualization (or dataviz, as it’s known in the business) can be a powerful tool to have in your kit.

There are many ways nonprofits can introduce visual communication into their data; two of the most common methods are via standalone infographics and graphics that are integrated into reporting.

Data visualization isn’t just eye-catching, it’s also effective

Two researchers ran a small survey to assess whether alternative descriptions for the same information were more persuasive. Each respondent read a description of a fake new drug on the market. 68% of respondents believed that the drug was effective, based on the text. Then for a randomly selected subsample, the researchers supplemented the description of the drug trial with a simple chart raising the proportion who believed in the efficacy of the drug from 68% to 97%. But here’s the kicker, that chart contained no new information, it simply repeated the original information. Showing a chart made it enormously more persuasive.

To get the most out of data visualization, it’s important to write good copy

The first step is identifying the story you want to tell and what do you want to communicate. What do you want the infographic to achieve? Who are you speaking to? Find the data that will convey your nonprofit’s message in the simplest, clearest way possible. Identify what data the organization has collected, but also look for outside sources, such as Census figures or other open data that could bolster the message or help put your organization’s data in context.

Other tips include:

  • Avoid using too many words, focus on the concepts you want to express
  • Ideas should have a flow; don’t lean on bullet points too much but rather construct chunks of information that make a case when put together
  • Refine and shorten copy as much as possible
  • Credit sources of data

Generally speaking, a well-balanced ratio is 70% illustrations and 30% copy. You’ll want to shorten the copy, turn it into smaller chunks and/or use the most salient points as titles for the illustrations or icons.

Keep your audience’s attention by integrating data visualization into reporting

Nonprofits are increasing their use of data visualization within their reporting. Annual reports, for example, are both a public-relations opportunity and a chance for transparency. This is where using data visualization can be a useful way to increase the amount of information you can get across to your reader. You want to give readers—whether they’re employees, donors, policymakers, journalists, and board members—the chance to explore the report and absorb the information.

To many, the biggest challenge of creating annuals reports is their size. In 1996, the average length for the annual report of a listed company was 44 pages. By 2000 it was 56 pages. 2006: 85 pages. 2009: 99 pages. 2010: 101 pages. Annual reports are not only becoming more time consuming, but the longer they get, the harder it becomes to hold the readers’ attention. The best way to cut through the white noise of information overload is to incorporate well-thought-out charts and infographics to allow users to digest lots of information at a glance.

Take your data further with interactivity

Data visualization in nonprofit reporting is nothing new; the majority of organizations have been using some kind of charts or graphs in their reporting for decades. The big new development here is interactivity, which is ushering in a new phase in nonprofit reporting. Interactive reports allow readers to filter data that is most relevant to them. This is especially valuable when communicating survey reports.

One example comes from the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (CCVO). Each year the CCVO takes a snapshot of the health and experience of Alberta’s nonprofits and charities, capturing information on finances, demand for services, staffing, and the future economic outlook of organizations. These surveys help illustrate the trends occurring across Alberta’s nonprofit sector, and results are used by the nonprofit sector, government, funders and researchers for education, advocacy and to inform decisions. Their interactive data portal allows users to quickly and easily filter data, by size, subsector, and region to isolate and compare the information that matters the most to the user.

The most important aspect of using data visualization for nonprofits is being able to show impact effectively. Not only does it help communicate the good work of your organization, but it does so in a way that that invites engagement and facilitates understanding of complex information.



There are many tools and resources available for anyone interested in integrating data visualization into their communications:


Photo credit: Ffuntion 


About the Author

Rebecca GallowayRebecca Galloway is the Communications Manager at FFunction, an award-winning information design studio based in Montreal. Prior to her role with FFunction, Rebecca spent more than a decade working in communications and development for nonprofits in New Zealand, the United States, and Canada. A graduate of Victoria University of Wellington (NZ), she is interested in working at the intersection of art, digital storytelling, technology and design. 


Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.

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