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Data visualization for dummies: how your nonprofit can tell powerful stories with data

Data Visualization
Facebook infographic

Over the past little while of browsing around online, I’ve been seeing more and more pretty infographics, like this one (on the right). These can be a great way of displaying information visually, but if you’re like me you look at it and think “well that’s nice, but I could never make something like that.” I got sucked into this idea that visualizing your data meant having your own data analyst and graphic designer hard at work all the time - which of course is out of reach for me and many other nonprofits.

I watched a webinar a few weeks ago that reminded me that data visualization isn’t just about fancy infographics, it’s about getting a message across - telling a story - with data. And better yet, that this is something that I (with no graphic design skills to speak of) can do with a little bit of thought and my familiar MS Office programs (or Open Office, or whatever you prefer).

If you are in any kind of role that involves communications, fundraising, advocacy or reporting (and even if you aren’t), I highly recommend taking the 1 hour to watch this webinar on Foundations & Practice in Data Visualization. If you aren’t yet sold, watch the first 4 minutes and then jump to 36:40 and watch Cole Nussbaumer transform a standard Excel graph into a powerful visual with a few simple edits.

Here are a couple of the key takeaways that I started putting in practice right after watching this webinar:

  • Get rid of the clutter that Excel (or whichever program you are using) puts in by default. In Excel 2010, there are multiple designs to choose from, some of which are much cleaner, so that’s a good start. Once you’ve done that, keep going and take out as much as you can without losing the meaning of the graph.

  • Be very clear on what you want your graph to accomplish, what story you want to tell, what key message you want to get across. Think of that central idea and then design the graph to focus your audience’s attention towards that idea. You may also want to reinforce the idea with a line of text stating the trend or conclusion.

If you’re interested in learning more about data visualization, I suggest taking a look at these resources that Beth Kanter pulled together for her recent session at the NTEN Technology Conference, and keep an eye on our blog and website for more resources on this topic coming up later this month.


Great example

A great example of these principles in pratice (walking through how to make a chart showing the trend in your organization's social media followers, advocates and donors) is posted on Beth Kanter's blog: I highly recommend taking a look at this walkthrough. Tierney