October 5, 2011

How nonprofits should use infographics

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Figures, properly used, can help tell your organization’s story

Target audience: Nonprofits, NGOs, cause organizations, Web designers, Web publishers, brands, educators.

Debra AskanaseInfographics are multiplying like rabbits. I run across them everywhere, and about all types of subjects from the power of social fundraising to what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Some are great, some not so great. The abundance of data we now have to process is fueling the trends toward content curation, data consolidation tools and information visualization.

As Beth Kanter remarked on a public Google Plus thread about creating useful infographics, “I think that information visualization is a necessity in this age of data overload and seeing the forest beyond the trees.” I agree with that statement and personally jump to view the “shiny new storytelling toy” whenever I see an infographic. Infographics represent an exciting new storytelling avenue for nonprofit organizations, enabling them to share important data stories visually.

Infographics as storytelling

Infographics represent a natural extension of storytelling: telling the story of data. It’s not a coincidence that storytelling is growing as we struggle to understand all the information coming at us and overcome cause fatigue.Karen Dietz, who uses storytelling to help businesses grow, says that “infographics are another form of visual storytelling and many of the same oral storytelling principles apply. We’ll be sorting out the issues of authenticity and key messaging and quality as infographics become more popular and easier to produce.” And therein lies the rub: quality. Just as all stories are not created equally, neither are all infographics.

Passing the infographics litmus test

What makes a great infographic? Urs Gattiker, Chief Technology Officer of ComMetrics, frames it perfectly: “The question is, can viewers see the overall shape of the data more easily and quickly with infographics than any other visual aid? Most infographics fail this acid test.” Urs Gattiker’s ComMetrics blog post describes in detail what makes an infographic dashboard or design useful. (It’s chock full of great resources and data.)

Dave, of Communication Nation, created a “manifesto” of what makes a good infographic:

1. It’s a visual explanation that helps you more easily understand, find or do something.
2. It’s visual, and when necessary, integrates words and pictures in a fluid, dynamic way.
3. It stands alone and is completely self-explanatory.
4. It reveals information that was formerly hidden or submerged.
5. It makes possible faster, more consistent understanding.
6. It’s universally understandable.

I would add to this list: The reader does not have to search for the key data points or key story elements.

As Urs points out, it takes quite a bit of time and skill to create a good infographic. A nonprofit needs either money to work with the right designer or have a designer on staff to create a good one. However, you can experiment with some of the DIY infographic tools listed in the infographic ideas and resources at the bottom of this post.

5 ways that nonprofits can use infographics

infographic voices.org
A Voices for America’s Children infographic.

There are a lot of great ways that nonprofit organizations can use infographics. Below are five ideas for nonprofits that want to tell stories using infographics. Feel free to add to this with your examples and ideas.

1. Show the need for a program. This infographic illustrates the need for clean drinking water. This infographic from the World Wildlife Federation shows the impact of climate change in the coral triangle region of the world.

2. Visualize the data from a report, such as this infographic summarizing the eNonprofit Benchmarks study.

3. Move people to action. Voices for America’s Children created an infographic showing where children live in poverty in the USA, overlaid with where the important elected officials live. The infographic is located adjacent to its “take action” online letter to elected officials.

4. Donation impact. Charity: water created an infographic called How Your Birthday Can Change the World to show the impact of donations.

5. Impact of services. The American Red Cross’ infographic illustrates the many ways that they are helping victims of US natural disasters.

Infographics ideas and resources

Looking for ideas and inspiration? Visual.ly has a pool of community-created infographics that you can subscribe to by RSS. For storytelling inspiration, check out Wilton Blake’s scoop.it curated topic “Storytelling = Nonprofit Sustainability” and Jennifer King’s “Storytelling for Social Change” scoop.it curated topic. Jonha Revsencio curates the scoop.it topic “Awesome Infographics.” Also worth looking through is the Flickr infographics pool. Beth Kanter writes, “Can Stories be Data?,” postulating that storytelling is as much about the stories as it is about the data, while making sense of the data that comes from stories.

Looking for tools? Create and explore your own data visualizations with visual.ly (and this article about it). Check out Wild Apricot’s blog post on tools to make your own infographic. Get started with creating your own charts, diagrams and more: 32 free tools to create different diagrams. Fast Company reviews the five best free tools for making slick infographics.


Gov 2.0 resources (Socialbrite)

How charity: water leads the way in social fundraising (Socialbrite)

Getting started with social media metrics (Socialbrite)

Social media metrics main page (Socialbrite)Debra Askanase works with nonprofits and businesses to create engagement strategies that move people to action. She is a social media strategist and partner in Socialbrite. Visit her profile page, see her Community Organizer 2.0 blog, follow her on Twitter, contact Debra by email or leave a comment.

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  • Thanks Debra. Timely and full of very useful links. I think combining ‘big data’ with clear and informed analysis and presenting that visually is a very powerful tool for nonprofits.

    I’m curating some fundraising-related nonprofit infographics at


    I include infographics as one element of curation in my training courses in the UK on digital curation by charities:


    • Hi Howard,
      Thank you for sharing your pininterest curated topic on fundraising-related infographics. I’ll be following it from now on!

  • Debra

    Great blog post. I am so pleased to be referenced here. Merci bien.

    However, I wanted to ask some questions. For instance:

    1 – Could we use just numbers to show the increase we show in Figure 1 above. Put differently, is an infographic really needed to communicate this?

    2. What about just using bar charts to show how things developed over the last five years with a line for the mean within the graphic?

    3. How about providing at the bottom of the figure a small Note explaining where these data come from. Who collected these numbers and how. For instance, if they come from a reputable organization like the OECD we can probably provide a link to where these numbers come from.

    The graphics are clear and allow me to get the message in one glance. Nevertheless, I am one of those people who believes that unless a graphic says more than a thousand words…. why should I use it?

    Having said the above, I repeat, this is a great post with lots of links to wonderful resources.

    PS. I look forward reading your guest post on our blog in late October.

    • Urs,
      I think you bring up an excellent point, which is “when is an infographic needed vs. showing charts and numerical data?” I’m not an infographics designer, but I think that the first point from Dave’s “manifesto,” above, is most relevant here: It’s a visual explanation that helps you more easily understand, find or do something.

      I also think of infographics as storytelling. Sometimes numbers tell a story, but the story is not easily understood. Other visual images accentuate important data points or reveal hiddent data. Pie charts are great for that as well, and I’ve seen some fabulous infographics that are not more than pie charts and bar charts, but the added non-chart graphics put them in perspective. for example, in figure 1, I think the visual that accompanies 163% tells the story at a glance and also emotionally connects with how important a change it is. I think the graphic image of the top left figure says it better than 1,000 words, but I do not think the top right image does, to reference your points.

      I couldn’t agree more that the lack of footnotes and sourcing of infographics does a real disservice to the data. I also want to see notantions become the standard for infographics.

      p.s. I’m also excited to put together a guest post for ComMetrics in late October!

      • Debra

        Thanks for answering and yes, you are right, it is about a footnote that would really help…. including a URL where I can see the original data on which an infographic is based upon.

        Have a great weekend.

  • I really think this post is right on point. Of course, infographics are on the rise Internet-wide, but the non-profits as a group are really not taking advantage of them. Perhaps we will do post to showcase some other nonprofit infographic samples n our blog.

    • Mia, thanks for your reply. I sure wish nonprofits were taking more advantage of this data visualization technique. However, most are stymied not by the desire but by technology barrier (don’t know how, don’t have anyone on staff who can do this), and may not have the budget to put it together. I’m anxiously awaiting the day when more DIY tools become available to create infographics and other data viz collateral.

      • Have you checked out Visual.ly? I believe they just released a beta DIY infographic tool…

        • Mia, I knew Visal.ly was about to release a DIY infographic tool. Thanks for alerting me to the fact that it has been released. It looks great – will have to check it out.