News and analysis
March 04, 2012

Visualizing Data Helps Charities Get Attention

Graphics give nonprofits an advantage in reachingthe public and in improving their work

Feeding America created this interactive map showing how many people in each county can’t afford food, as a resource for policy makers.

The Coral Triangle, tropical marine waters off the coast of Indonesia, Malaysia, and several other Asia Pacific countries, teems with life. The region is home to more than 500 species of reef-building corals, three-quarters of all known species, and more than 3,000 kinds of fish, while its shores provide nesting grounds for six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles.

It’s only in the past decade that scientists have fully understood the region’s ecological and economic importance, so a big part of the World Wildlife Fund’s conservation work is getting the word out about what the Coral Triangle is and why it matters. To educate people without overwhelming them, the charity created a series of infographics, documents that combine key facts, anecdotes, and imagery. The idea is to explain topics quickly, like the threat climate change poses to the Coral Triangle, and move the viewer to want to learn more.

The organization uses the infographics to start conversations both online and off, says Paolo P. Mangahas, communications manager for the group’s Coral Triangle program. “It’s like a calling card.”

Explaining the Mission

At a time when people are bombarded with more information than ever, charities are looking for ways to visualize data to explain complex issues succinctly, spur advocacy, support their fundraising, and show donors where their money is going. Some, like the World Wildlife Fund, are creating infographics that can be shared easily via social media, while others are creating interactive Web tools that allow users to slice and dice the data on their own.

Good visualizations can also help charities better understand their own data and use those insights to improve their programs, says Jake Porway, founder of Data Without Borders. “Humans are incredibly visual creatures,” he says. “Our inability to see patterns when we have spreadsheets in front of us really hampers us from doing really good work.”

Volunteer Data Scientists

Data Without Borders is one of several new nonprofits springing up to help their fellow charities analyze and present information. Formed last summer, the group seeks to match organizations with data scientists who volunteer their time and skills. And the Center for Digital Information’s mission is to help nonprofit think tanks and policy groups find new ways to present their research that take better advantage of the Internet. (The center’s first meeting, held last month, was called “Beyond the PDF.”)

But as data visualization becomes increasingly popular, nonprofit officials who have used the technique caution that charities need to guard against getting swept away by the excitement.

“If your boss walks into your office and says, 'We need to make an infographic,’ it’s the wrong approach,” says Paull Young, director of digital engagement at Charity: Water. “You need to think about your audience and your donors. What information is going to inspire them, educate them, provide any sort of value to them?”

Going Viral

Charity: Water, like other nonprofits, often uses infographics to help attract new donors but typically does not include direct appeals with the images. Nonetheless, when a piece goes viral, the result can be an influx of gifts.

For Earth Day last year, Charity: Water created “Water Changes Everything,” an animated infographic that describes how access to clean water in developing countries affects not only health but also education and the economy. The three-minute video was viewed more than 500,000 times, and the organization saw online donations rise.

Another water group, A Child’s Right, is using an infographic to solve a tricky, if enviable, fundraising challenge: explaining to donors that a $10-million gift from the investor George F. Russell Jr. and his wife, Dion, doesn’t mean the charity has all the money it needs to fulfill its mission.

The Russells’ contribution, which will be paid over 10 years, will help the organization expand its work—bringing clean drinking water to schools, orphanages, and hospitals—from four countries to 16.

The document shows how much the expansion will cost over all and what portion of that is covered by the $10-million donation.

Offering a visual explanation showing that the Russell gift will pay for only part of the group’s expansion has made a real difference in the tenor of discussions with prospective donors, says Eric Stowe, founder of A Child’s Right: “Before we would just speak about it, and we’d whiteboard it out for people and still get, 'Well, you guys are fine now. You have $10-million.’”

Simple Messages

When it comes to infographics, the biggest challenge is finding the data that will convey a charity’s message in the simplest, clearest way possible, says Bill Bentley, chief executive of Voices for America’s Children, an advocacy group that has created a series of graphics on topics like racial disparities in education and the number of children living in poverty.

“If you throw one of these infographics out the window and somebody walks by and picks it up, we want them to be able to understand it and go, 'Wow, I want to know more about this,’” he says.

Infographics have helped Voices for America’s Children expand its online presence, tripling the number of friends on the organization’s Facebook page.

The group also has a tool on its Web site that allows people who have been moved by one of the infographics to send personal notes to their members of Congress. From August to December of last year, visitors sent more than 12,000 messages.

The American Red Cross is testing data visualization as another way to convey information about its work to supporters and the news media. For example, the organization created an infographic detailing its response to domestic natural disasters in 2011.

The temptation is to include too many figures and too much explanatory text, says Anne Marie Borrego, the group’s director of media relations. “It’s good to edit yourself,” she says. “You want to let the picture tell a story.”

Free Online Software

The cost of creating an infographic varies widely, but it doesn’t have to be expensive, says Kurt Voelker, chief technology officer at Forum One Communications, a technology consulting company that works with nonprofits and government agencies.

One way for a charity to get started, he says, would be to put the designer who lays out the annual report, the person who heads research or data collection, and the person in charge of the organization’s Web site together in a room for a couple days.

“You’d probably be shocked at what they can produce,” says Mr. Voelker.

Smaller groups can take advantage of free online software, such as Google Fusion Tables and IBM’s Many Eyes, says Lisa Goddard, director of online marketing at the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas. “If you know how to use Excel, you can probably use those two tools,” she says.

Ms. Goddard has used them to create numerous infographics for the food bank’s Web site on issues like the income gap for residents who make too much money to qualify for food stamps and other assistance but not enough to cover the cost of basic living expenses in the charity’s Austin area.

She relies on feedback from another employee who has a graphic-design background. But she also solicits opinions, inside and outside the organization to see how others interpret the document’s message and to get their thoughts on whether it’s engaging.

“Whenever I create an infographic, I send it to a variety of different people and say, 'Is this too data-wonky, or is this so ugly you don’t want to look at it?” says Ms. Goddard.

Improving Operations

At this point, charities’ use of data visualization overwhelmingly has been to communicate specific messages to supporters, policy makers, and others. But some nonprofit leaders believe that a graphic representation of data is even more important as a tool to understand and improve their operations.

Water for People developed a system called Field Level Operations Watch—or FLOW—to collect data about its water and sanitation projects and then visualize the data.

Providing donors with an honest accounting of the organization’s successes and failures was one reason for creating the system, says Ned Breslin, the charity’s chief executive. But, he says, it also gives the group real-time feedback that it has used to tweak programs.

For example, he says, Water for People used to gather all the people who manage water systems in the communities where they work in Honduras for a training session. But when the charity measured how well those water systems were run, it saw that the quality varied widely. So the organization changed course and started conducting workshops tailored to the specific challenges a community faced.

Says Mr. Breslin: “Because we were able to see it quickly and in a way that people could get their heads around—­as opposed to reading through a report­—it became very clear that something was not working.”

Creating an Infographic: Tips for Nonprofits

  • Look at a wide variety of infographics, from nonprofits, businesses, and other sources, to get ideas.
  • Decide what the charity wants the infographic to achieve. Don’t create one just because it’s a trendy approach.
  • Identify what data the organization has collected, but also look for outside sources, such as Census figures, that could bolster the message or help put the group’s data in context.
  • Follow the organization’s style guidelines on fonts, color schemes, and tone to maintain the group’s brand.
  • Keep it simple. Convey the message quickly and clearly. Too many numbers or ideas can confuse or overwhelm viewers.
  • Balance esthetics and substance. An infographic needs to be useful as well as visually appealing.
  • Credit sources of data.
  • Experiment. Try free and low-cost software to see what’s possible.