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Nonprofit Data Visualization & Infographics: The Definitive Guide

Jeff Gordy

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As we approach the year-end wrap up, it’s time to start evaluating performance over the past year and looking at how your organization can do better next year. Nonprofit data visualization and infographics can be effective tools to share fundraising insights and nice additions to your annual report and fundraising materials — but only if they’re done right.

At its best, nonprofit data visualization and infographics can tell a compelling story about your organization’s impact that motivates your audience (donors, board members, etc.) to take action and support your mission.

At its worst, they can confuse your audience and even misrepresent information — diluting your organization’s legitimacy and decreasing your audience’s trust.

So how can your organization do data visualization and infographics the right way? We’ll cover a few tips to keep your data viz accurate and inspiring — plus a few free tools!

Clean your data first

Before starting any nonprofit data visualization or infographic project, make sure to look over your data and prepare it for data visualization. You’ll first need to identify the values you need to use for your project, so you can focus on cleaning and manipulating that data for presentation. It may be helpful to temporarily delete or hide any extraneous data — but be sure not to delete that data forever, in case you need to use it or reference it later.

If you have a CRM, your database should mostly take care of any duplicate data and misspellings. But you may still want to export to Excel and check it over before manipulating anything. Make sure values are standardized: for example, one might spell the state of New York as New York, N.Y. or NY. Standardization is important throughout your database, and can make a huge difference for your data visualization.

Here are some tutorials on prepping your data for nonprofit data visualization and infographics using Excel:

If your CRM runs executive reports, take advantage of them. Many of these reports do the calculations for you, so you don’t have to manipulate the data. Neon runs these reports based on metrics created by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, so you’ll have all the analytics you need to get real insight about your organization’s fundraising.

But do feel free to think outside the box. MailChimp's year in review included more uncommon stats that helped craft a story that truly stands out.

But don’t limit yourself — feel free to think outside the box! MailChimp’s year in review included more uncommon stats that helped craft a story that truly stands out.

If you don’t have a CRM, your organization should seriously consider investing one. With the data management features included in your donor database, you’ll be able to cut down on the time and resources you be expend toward keeping your database clean. If you’re shopping, make sure to check out this resource, which outlines the top considerations to make when purchasing new nonprofit software.

Cleaning your data may not sound glamorous, but it’s so important. The right data will make the  difference between effective nonprofit data visualizations and misrepresented data that could get your organization into a lot of trouble.

Tell a story

No matter how pretty your pie chart is, it’s totally useless unless it offers up a compelling insight. Don’t get caught up in the visualization, when the data is the part that really matters.

For some inspiration on the impact of quality data visualization, check out this TED talk by David McCandless. He suggests that good design helps us sift through mass amounts of information, and it can even impact the way we see the world.

Keep this in mind when you start your project — you want to tell a story about the insights from your data. Be sure to identify your insights and the points you’d like to highlight before you begin your project. This will help you identify what data to include, how to represent it and any points you’ll need to emphasize in the visualization itself.

nonprofit data visualization - ex

This example from VolunteerMatch tells a great story, but the 3D and themed elements make the data hard to read.

A few helpful points to remember for any nonprofit data visualization or infographic project:

  • Make sure the story you’re telling fits into your organization’s larger story. Your final product should reflect your branding and overall content strategy. That includes following writing conventions in labels, descriptions and any text, as well as any graphic elements (like shape and color) that reflect your nonprofit’s branding conventions.
  • It may be helpful to emphasize certain points with color, to really drive home your insights and make sure your readers are on the same page. Be sure to limit this if possible — it will be more impactful if it’s done sparingly.
  • But be aware of how you’re using color. Certain colors (example: red = negative, deficit) can have negative connotations depending on their contexts. For the best results, consider using a darker or bolder version of a color you’re already using on any points you want to emphasize.

Keep it simple

As we mentioned, you should include elements of your organization’s overall branding and content strategy in your nonprofit data visualization projects. This will reinforce your org’s messaging and help to tie your data to your impact.

But many nonprofits — and other companies and organizations — take this suggestion and go too far with it, including some “cute” elements like themed symbols and elaborate illustrations. While these elements can add some fun to data projects, they ultimately distract from the data and can lead to misrepresentations.

If you’re using more than one symbol, you can run into problems with area. If a symbol used to represent a certain data point is thicker and has less white space than another symbol, the brain will perceive the thicker symbol as larger, because it takes up more space.

Many visualizations run into these problems with standard shapes, too. Even professional data visualization journalists accidentally misrepresented data behind the ALS ice bucket challenge. Their visualization only accounted for width and height, not area, and had to be corrected.

nonprofit data visualization - example 2

This example from the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved uses icons that help to tell the story, but keep the data representation simple and easy to read.

As a best practice, you should take out any extraneous elements that aren’t needed to understand your nonprofit data visualization. Even some standard elements that we’ve been taught to include in graphs — like tick marks and gridlines — can actually distract from your data and insights. Here are a few adjustments to make to your graphs that will make them easier to understand:

  • Arrange data in an order that makes sense (highest value to lowest value, not alphabetically)
  • Shorten labels when possible ($1,000,000 to $1M)
  • Remove background grid lines (or make them very faint)
  • Remove excessive styling (like shadows, bevels, etc.)
  • Don’t use any 3D effects
  • Don’t include a legend/key if it’s not necessary

Depending on your organization and your data, you may have other needs for your nonprofit data visualizations. But these adjustments are a good starting point that will make your data stand out.

(Mostly) Free Resources for Nonprofit Data Visualization

  • Excel. Technically not free, but odds are your organization already uses it. Excel has a pretty comprehensive charts and graphs tool, and there are several easy tweaks to make your visuals even better. Check out this guide for more information.
  • Google Sheets. If you don’t have Excel, check out Google’s alternative. Though not as robust, there are still some great tools to make charts and graphs. Here’s a tutorial.
  • Canva. Free online design software that lets you create simple infographics. This is a great option for orgs without a designer on staff.
  • Visual.ly. Similar to Canva, this site lets you create simple infographics. It’s also a great place to go for inspiration, as they display a wide range of infographics on their site.
  • Adobe Color. Great site for picking color themes and groups for design projects.
  • The Noun Project. This website has an icon for anything word or idea you can think of. Since humans process images faster than words, it’s a great idea to include icons in your nonprofit data visualization to make it easier to understand. Most icons are free if you give credit.
  • Tableau. There are some free options, but it costs a bit to have the full functionality. It’s probably the most widely used data visualization software, with a lot of capabilities. Might be worth an investment if you’re planning to do a lot of it.
  • The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics. Not free, but this book is really the go-to guide for presenting data in a simple way. Worth a read if you’re looking to become a nonprofit data visualization expert!

Has your nonprofit tried data visualization? Share any tips, tricks or resources with us in the comments!

Image: Freepik

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