Data Visualization 101 for Social Change

William Fenn Headshot

By William Fenn, Innovation Network and EPIP-DC 

“One page, that’s all you get,” I was told the first time I presented to the board. How is that possible, I thought? I had been running due diligence on this project for months, collecting several hundred pages of budget and proposal information with multiple rounds of revisions. Now I understand the one page limit. I was only working on one small grant out of hundreds that the board would debate – and that wasn’t even considering the documentation the board had to digest about larger strategic planning and operational issues.

The challenge of information overload is not unique to foundation boards. Non-profit staff also must present large volumes of information in a way that is quickly understood. At RFP time, foundation staff plough through and rank stacks of proposals. After a long day, those proposals begin to look the same and the non-profits that stand-out are those who make results jump to the reader’s attention.

But how can staff condense reams of paper and hours of research for upper-level decision makers? Data visualization is one tool that I have found helpful.

Data visualization represents complex data and statistics in informational graphics (“infographics”). Infographics are like the textbook charts and diagrams we all grew up with, pushed further. They use an array of new, eye-catching approaches that make data understandable at a glance.

Dataviz 1 Fenn Blog

One of my favorite infographics simplifies the complex relationship between different styles of beer:

Getting Started: Here are some basic starter tips and resources:

  1. Figure out the message in your data.
  2. Say it, and show it – Have a six to eight word “message” at the top of each graph.
  3. Reduce the graph clutter – That means gridlines and everything else you can remove.
  4. No default chart colors or 3D – default colors kill a customized look, 3-D distorts proportions.
  5. Only one or two colors – Keep it simple with one color using a second only to emphasize a bar or line that supports your message.


Dataviz 2 Fenn Blog

My colleague, Ann Emery, showed a great example from a Canadian advertising campaign that illustrates these principles.

The reasoning behind these five tips will become clear as you read through these recommended resources and start making your own data visualizations:

Now you have all you need to ensure your work gets noticed in this world of 1000 word limits, elevator pitches, and time-critical decisions.

About the Author: William Fenn works at Innovation Network evaluating programs for foundations and previously worked as a Program Officer at the Kohlberg Foundation. This blog post follows-up on a data visualization presentation at the EPIP DC chapter by Ann Emery of Innovation Network.