2 min Read
June 3, 2010

A picture’s worth 1,000 words: information graphics for nonprofits

Rebecca Hume

Most nonprofits understand the importance of written communication. Mission statements, fundraising appeals, and grant proposals are just a few ways organizations use words to make their case. But communicating information graphically can be another powerful tool for nonprofits.Good infographics can illustrate ideas that might take pages to explain in writing. They function as a visual shorthand, clarifying relationships with a degree of immediacy and impact text just can’t offer.

Effective graphics can be created for many types of information, but they are best suited for showing comparisons, structures, and processes. Figuring out what type of infographic is right for a project typically requires three steps:

  1. Know the story you want to tell.
  2. Find the information that best tells the story.
  3. Determine the form that most clearly displays that information.

Just as with writing, information design must have a thesis statement. You need to know what you want your graphic to communicate and limit yourself to the data set that tells that story. (It should go without saying that your story must be a true one. The cardinal sin of information design is using visual treatments to misrepresent data.) Your story can be as simple as “People need the services we offer,” or “Our programs make a difference.” But you must be able to articulate your point before you can determine what facts and form will communicate it best.

Once you know your story, you’ll have to find the right data to support it. The need for a nonprofit’s services could be shown in many ways: highlighting increases in program attendance, citing statistics on underlying social problems, explaining a unique approach, or showing the absence of similar organizations nearby. Think of which evidence will be most compelling for your audience.

The type of information you settle on will help determine the form of your final infographic. If you’re showing how parts of a whole relate, a pie chart or treemap can do the job; when comparing quantities you may want to try a bar graph, bubble chart, or pictograph; for changes over time, a timeline or area graph can work well. Systems and hierarchies may require more complex visual treatments, but the design should never overshadow the relationship you’re trying to show.

An example of this process can be seen in a brochure Big Duck recently created for the New York City Charter School Center. The Charter Center had gathered a wealth of data, but wasn’t sure of the best way to use it. We worked together to figure out exactly what story (or, in this case, stories) they wanted to tell. The result was a series of 10 points that dispel common misconceptions about charter schools, many with an accompanying graphic to help get the point across.

Now, instead of asking parents and policy makers to wade through pages of written reports, the Charter Center can give them a tool to help them understand the issues at a glance. And, with audiences this busy, that can make all the difference.