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Indexes are the New Infographics

One of the most fascinating applications for the index is the non-profit sector. Intuitively, the non-profit sector seems like the last place you’d see an index. Indexes are, after all, built on value; well-established ones like the Consumer Price Index take a vast array of consumer good prices and pack them into a neat little number, which can then be tracked historically to give us a barometer inflation. But now non-profits are leveraging vast troves of data on elusive but important issues like economic freedom and even quality of life—and it’s changing the way we look at many of our greatest challenges.

To understand how numbers can help non-profits tell better stories and ultimately affect more meaningful change, it’s important to understand some history. It used to be that when non-profits focused on issues like hunger or emergency aid, institutions like UNICEF or the Red Cross often raised awareness and compelled action on issues with accounts of those who needed help. Images of starving children helped drive home a reality that even the most removed audiences found hard to ignore. Need to sound the alarm on climate change? Roll out a photo of a polar bear on a lonely, melting iceberg and you had the ingredients for an old-school non-profit marketing campaign.

Well, not anymore. While images can be powerful, causes have evolved quickly since the dawn of the information age. Audiences have become more educated and far more sophisticated. They also expect a lot more transparency when it comes to understanding the issues. More likely than not, donors won’t be convinced by narratives or anecdotal evidence alone. Cause-driven organizations can’t just ask audiences to take their word for it. For audiences to support a cause, they need two things: to understand it, and to see the evidence for themselves.

Understanding the Issue

To be sure, non-profit organizations have made great headway on the former. Constructive has built a practice around helping cause-driven organizations articulate who they are, what they do, and why they matter with greater eloquence and efficacy. And communicating the cause from a strongly-branded perspective pays dividends with audiences that are increasingly demanding and impatient. To truly scale your impact on an issue, you’ve got to compete for your share of audience mind-space along with everyone else, and the best way to succeed remains delivering a consistent, compelling brand experience that resonates with your audience and effortlessly transforms amateurs into experts.

Supporting the Cause

But what about turning cynics into advocates? That’s where the data comes in: sophisticated audiences demand hard evidence. But therein lies the problem—the more data you present, the more meaningful / less accessible it becomes. This paradox helped spawn the infographic boom: organizations were awash in data, and needed to find a way to package it and make it more appealing. The result has been an explosion in designs integrating qualitative and quantitative content with statistics and data visualizations. Some of these are little more than cosmetic enhancements with colorful icons to decorate the information, but at their best, effective infographics distill complex information and help audiences appreciate a new perspective. There are some great benefits to infographics, but they’re often driven by a narrative, which comes with its own implied point-of-view or agenda. But now, non-profits have discovered a new way to present data and it promises to be even more succinct and useful than the ubiquitous infographic.

One advantage of the index is that it simplifies the complex. Indexes harness vast amounts of data across a variety of segments and represent them as a single value. So instead of asking audiences to digest volumes of data, they get the gist in a neat little bite-sized piece. For example, the Yale EPI measures environmental performance for 178 countries across 9 issue areas and 20 different indicators. By itself, the raw data they’ve amassed is all but incomprehensible. But distill all these numbers down to a series of scores via a robust and transparent index methodology, and all the sudden you have an elegant system that allows you to compare apples to apples for a wide variety of criteria.

This leads us to the second key advantage: indexes provide empirical context for complex systems and dynamics—lowering resistance to the facts and resulting in better policies and practices in the process. By themselves, raw statistics don’t mean much. You say that some country put X million tons of C02 into the atmosphere last year? That sounds like a hell of a lot, but as a lay person, I really wouldn’t know. But roll that data into an index score, and you can tell not just how well a certain country is doing right now, but how their performance compares to their peers and their own historical performance. By creating an environment of greater context and useful comparison, organizations unleash the power of data to create competition and promote progress towards meeting our greatest challenges.

As one of our clients once told us, “stories get their interest, but metrics get their buy-in.” Imagery, narrative and anecdotal evidence are an important part of communicating your cause. But when you unleash the meaning behind data with an index that simplifies the complex and create context, you democratize the information and allow your audiences to combine data with their own assumptions and experience and draw their own conclusions. Then the metrics cease to just get buy-in; they tell a story of their own. Now that’s a powerful idea.

To see these ideas in  application, take a closer look at 3 projects Constructive recently helped to produce for non-profit organizations: the Environmental Performance Index for Yale University; the Oil Security Index for SAFE & Roubini Global Economics; and the Justice Index for the National Center for Access to Justice at Cardozo Law School.

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