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8 Resources for Effective, Ethical Nonprofit Data-Driven Storytelling

Whether you’re a nonprofit think tank or research institute and communicating with data and statistics is essential to advancing your mission, or you’re a nonprofit or foundation that mostly communicates with data to tell stories in your annual report or impact statements, you may be wondering about strategies to communicate more effectively using data visualization. As a company that partners with a good number of nonprofits who use emphasize data in their work and communications, Constructive is constantly looking for new ways to help nonprofits design with data, whether it’s for communications or for on data-driven tools like the Air Quality Life Index. Data visualization is the answer—but it’s only the beginning. This is because, to achieve the greatest social impact, data-driven communication and design for nonprofits have to be both intentional and inclusive.

At its core, while designing data may be daunting for some, data visualization is a storytelling technique. It’s just a way of giving visual form to information and numbers in order to communicate a narrative. Our goal is to help people understand complex dynamics more quickly and ideally, develop an emotional connection to what the data is telling them to catalyzes action. It does take a certain mindset to be able to design and communicate effectively with data. Embracing complexity, seeing patterns, reimagining how data sets can be turned into designed experiences that help nonprofits communicate more effectively are essential.

This type of thinking for designing with data is one of the many ongoing pursuits for Constructive’s team. If you’re looking to learn the fundamentals or dig into more advanced ideas, here are some of our favorite resources for telling compelling stories through effective and ethical data visualization practices. The perspectives shared here have been beacons for how we approach our own work—and we hope that they provide inspiration and a jumping-off point for your own data-driven storytelling journeys too!

How Data Visualization Creates Shared Understanding

Data visualization is a narrative technique that brings numbers and data to life in a picture to help tell a well-researched story. This article from Forbes breaks down the three key reasons why data visualization is such a compelling communications tool for building a shared understanding with audiences. First, it helps people understand information faster and more intuitively; second, it communicates emotion to readers through strategic design elements such as font, color choice and layout, and draws an action-oriented response from them; last but not the least, it helps create a shared understanding among key stakeholders.

Feeling Scale is Necessary to Inspire Action

We love this blog by Mathieu Guglielmino because it leans heavily into how data visualization is a particularly nifty tool for fostering empathy. Why is that, you ask? Visualizations help communicate quantity in a way few things—not even numbers—can. And this experience of scale catalyzes long-lasting emotional states that drive action. Our favorite quote from this piece: “We have become numb to numbers, awash in cold quantification. This lack of a sense of quantity has tremendous consequence on our collective lives. Data are important, but not by themselves. American Nobel Prize winner for literature, Toni Morrison, wrote “Data is not wisdom, is not knowledge,” meaning that without a story, statistics distance us from empathy. If words won’t do it, visual processing through space and affect is a natural way to feel quantities.”

The History and Future of Data Visualization

This article dives deep into recent trends in data visualization that social impact organizations can leverage to help real-world changes register with their audiences. It offers a rich menu of options you can choose from to tell more impactful data-driven stories that engage readers: turning data into games and intellectual exercises, “showing” rather than telling the large number you are trying to communicate to your stakeholders, animating data to help people better understand and retain it, humanizing numbers with story elements, and inviting reader participation to transform data content.

Data Visualization for Good: Resources and Applications

If we embrace Marshal McLuan’s idea that “The Medium is the Message,” then the tools we use when designing digital data visualization are incredibly influential in how effective a nonprofit’s data-driven communications are. Of course, there are a ton of platforms and technologies to chose from. In this webinar, Jake Garcia and George Ford from the Foundation Center help navigate the world interactive map-making and charting applications that nonprofits can use to communicate impact.

Show Me the Story: Storytelling Strategies for Your Graphs

Time to put our designer hats on! Descriptive titles, subtitles, annotations, and color saturation? These design details are essential when it comes to making sure that your data visually communicates a persuasive story. But wait a second! Aren’t there important questions we should be asking to take a smarter approach to design decisions to be more intentional about how we use them? Of course! Start with these questions: Who are your viewers? What information do they need? Do they want to see the data presented as-is, or do they want you to interpret the data?

Making the Colors in Visualized Data Accessible

We’re strong advocates of fostering diversity, equity and inclusion through design and communications practices. This UX Collective article turns to color palettes used in data visualization projects to explore how you can make them more accessible. The charts and graphs you use aren’t doing the work you want them to if colorblind audiences can’t visually differentiate between the different segments of your visualized data. The answer isn’t hard, it’s just a strategic combination of good design and attention to color contrast.

A 5-Step Guide for Finding the Story in Your Data

Data by itself means nothing. It has to be cleaned, organized, visualized, and interpreted so that it can tell the best stories. This article holds that the most effective data-driven stories come from exploring and making visible data relationships. Here’s a quick 5-step process you can follow to visualize these relationships. Some questions you should ask yourself as you do this work are: Does the data support or disprove my hypothesis? Does it debunk a widely held belief? Did data increase, decrease, or flatline? Does the data show any differences between groups? What are the top 10 (or bottom 10) observations for a metric or variable?

Creating Visual Impact in Your Next Annual Report

Annual reports are a cornerstone of an effective communications strategy, especially when they elevate effective data visualization. Lucy Todd’s blog post makes a strong case for incorporating more visual elements in your annual reports to make them stand out. Making use of data visualization in your annual report enables you, as a social impact organization, to show your achievements rather than merely tell them—and this changes how people attend to, understand, and respond to you for the better.

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