Nonprofits and Foundations: Don’t Forget the Infographics

flickr/*raj*I’ve read many articles and posts over the past few years about the nonprofit sector’s inability to manage and share information effectively. (Gee, I’ve even written a couple.) Most of these articles suggest how nonprofits can share information more meaningfully than through reports, and how they can tell stories that convey information in a more powerful, memorable way.

Let me add another important tool to this remedial mix—infographics.

Wikipedia defines them as visual devices intended to communicate complex information quickly and clearly. We’ve all seen examples of them—subway maps, traffic signs, scientific diagrams, and even children’s books. Here’s a good blog post introduction to infographics from InstantShift.

I’ve been intrigued with this field of expertise for a couple of decades, but the sheer volume of information out there now and the leaps made in communications technology have forced an enviable bloom in the field over the past couple of years. (Look at all the examples that pop up when you search in Google images or the flickr infographics pool!)

Right now, infographics are being used most effectively by newspapers and magazines interested in easy-to-understand explanations of complex concepts and relationships. But, some foundations and nonprofits have started to understand the value of this tool to visually simplify information that’s difficult to convey in text. Check out the infographics page on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation site.

Foundations especially have struggled for years to find ways of making their knowledge bases more accessible and understandable…and actionable! Infographics—because they are so quickly understood—can really help build momentum for action.

Let’s look at a few examples of good infographics, so you get the drift. Here are 50 excellent designs compiled by blogger Francesco Mugnai. Check out his other inspirational infographics lists under “related posts” on his blog. Note the flexibility of this medium, able to capture information as disparate as what’s inside Bob Dylan’s brain to the population demographics of the US or global giving patterns for the Haiti disaster (shown on  Information is Beautiful).

In addition to what’s linked above, other online resources offer stunning examples and regular commentary about infographics to spur your imagination.





My advice? The next time you encounter difficulty explaining information to your key audiences—don’t forget the beauty of infographics.

CC photo credit: *raj*


Free tool of the week: Glogster for interactive posters you can share

glog3CaptureThis week I’m back on the trail of online storytelling tools for nonprofits and foundations. In past weeks, I’ve reviewed Yodio, Animoto, and Prezi. This week it’s Glogster.

Glogster lets you create interactive “posters” using various bits of pre-made and user-generated content—video, photos, music, text, graphics, etc. You can use this service and save/publish your glogs without registering, which is handy. And, it’s fun to use!

If you look at Glogster’s homepage (above), you might think this is a self-expression tool for teens. It’s that, and much more I think. In a matter of about 15 minutes, I whipped up two super-simple cause posters about the need for youth development opportunities. They’re no award winners, but I got a sense for how powerful these posters might be if you spent more time and thought on them. I didn’t even explore the music aspect, but that could be a nice effect. Just click twice on the images to go to the full sized glogs. (Note: The one on the right has an embedded Youtube video.) For a better idea of the range of this tool, check out new glogs featured on the Glogster site.


The creative process is simple, but you do have to download videos, music, and photos before you can place them on your glog.

Sharing glogs is pretty easy, too. You can send them by email; bookmark them; and embed them on Facebook, MySpace, Blogger, WordPress, and other social media sites.

This could be a great way for nonprofits to create unique, engaging visuals for special event announcements, fund-raising appeals, donor thank yous, or even cause or educational messages. (NOTE: If you’re going to create a glog without professional design guidance, it might be a good idea to review my Design Eye-Q post from a few weeks back.)

Hope you find glogging as promising as I do!


Guest post: 10 things to consider when designing your annual report

Linda Henneman, ThinkDesign

Linda Henneman, ThinkDesign

Over the years, I’ve been in charge of developing a dozen annual reports for large foundations. For some of them, I was lucky enough to work with ThinkDesign Group. Their award winning work is known for its powerful interplay of text and design. For this guest post on annual reports, it was a no-brainer to turn to Linda Henneman, creative principal at ThinkDesign.

My nonprofit clients are producing annual reports this year, despite the economic downturn. Together, we’re creating pieces that are appropriate for the times. Like them, you too may be faced with a complex story to tell, with only a few pages to tell it on—most likely on a trimmed budget.

While addressing the reality of the economy is important, it need not be all doom and gloom. Instead, your audience needs to know that supporting your organization’s work now is more important than ever. So focus on setting the tone through a reassuring voice and compelling design, and be assured you won’t need to break the bank.

Remember, an annual report is your chance to talk to the people who have been passionate enough to support you financially. So create a solid annual, they’ll appreciate it!

1. How to think about the strategy behind the annual report

  • Yes, it’s a report addressing the past year, but make it even more useful by placing focus on the future.
  • What’s your message? It must be aligned with the needs of your organization, concise, true in good times and in bad, and delivered with confidence. Your message should convey the essence of your organization.
  • You’re talking to your supporters, but it’s also a great opportunity to talk to a new audience. Balance the “choir” audience and the potential new audience. Keep in mind that your supporters may also need help understanding the nuances of what you do.

2. Key leadership needs to be a part of the process

  • This is true from the initial discussion to choosing concepts. This is a piece that is the voice and vision of the leaders. Hearing directly from them is critical in setting the right tone.

3. Bring the designer and writer in early, they’ll help spark the process

  • The writer and designer can get the process started by being the outside voice and getting the focus off of the “internal speak.” Designers are problem solvers by training, and can offer ideas to overcome challenges. A good writer can inform the design and make the whole piece stronger, so get them on board from day one.
  • Provide your design team with the details they need to make your annual report stand out.

4. Start Early

  • Give yourself enough time, between three and four months. Forcing it into a shorter amount of time will only increase cost, errors, and stress. Your annual report concepting process can be a great opportunity to evaluate, revise, and reinforce your organization’s communications strategy.

5. The power of less copy & why writing shorter can be better

  • Using minimal text with powerful images can make a strong statement; quickly. In today’s world, it needs to be quick. People are taking less time to read.

6. A great cover makes you think

  • The cover should make you think. You should feel the urge to open it. And when you do, you get the payoff: your curiosity is satisfied.

7. Don’t neglect the mailing envelope

  • The envelope needs to break through the mail pile. An odd size for a little extra “wow,” or try colored envelopes or add a teaser headline to spark interest.

8. What to look for in photos

  • Photos don’t need to be literal—like people sitting around a table, working. Find more dynamic ways of telling your story.

9. Today’s green printing option

  • Promoting green printing practices sends a powerful message and can motivate others to do the same.
  • Choose a designer knowledgeable in eco-friendly paper and printing vendors. One that can help you make decisions on paper recycled content, vegetable-based inks. Look for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, renewable energies, efficiency in printing and press/paper setup.
  • Be sure to add a simple line of text explaining how your piece was printed green, include all applicable “certified-green” logos.

10. Differentiate your report from others without breaking the bank

  • It’s easy: a good concept, with strong messages, compelling visual, and clear, concise copy—and it doesn’t have to cost a lot to print. For instance, The Headwaters Foundation for Justice’s consistent, award winning annual reports are 2-color, use stock photography, and reprint efficiently on a sheet of paper.
  • A good designer can help choose an appropriate printer for your specific project. Paper selection, production and printing techniques can all be ways to cut costs.
  • Mailing cost is another area for potential savings. Consider smaller formats for lower postage costs.
  • Order realistic quantities. It may be cheaper per piece to print more, but if you just throw them away it doesn’t save money or the planet.


Free tool of the week: Design Eye-Q

eye-q-captureIn a recent post on A List Apart, called In defense of eye candy, the author concludes this about attractive Web site design:

“The more we learn about people, and how our brains process information, the more we learn the truth of that phrase: form and function aren’t separate items. If we believe that style somehow exists independent of functionality, that we can treat aesthetics and function as two separate pieces, then we ignore the evidence that beauty is much more than decoration. Our brains can’t help but agree.”

This wisdom extends to all kinds of visual design beyond Web sites. Keep in mind that 2/3 of all the stimuli that reach the brain are visual, so the appearance of your communications is critical. Pleasing, well done design can play a big role in getting your communications looked at and read—no small feat in this cluttered world.

But many nonprofit staff aren’t  trained in visual design and may not know what to look for when they’re judging a designer’s work. Design Eye-Q to the rescue. Got an hour? Here’s a terrific free, 60-minute webinar that takes the mystery out of good design.

One in a series of great nonprofit resources produced by CauseCommunications, it will teach you the 10 questions you need to  ask when evaluating new Web pages, e-newsletters, annual reports, direct mail, or any other professionally designed communications.  You’ll learn about the different emotions that particular colors convey, what type face to use when, things to consider when you’re designing a logo, why eye patterns are important, and other valuable tips.

After reviewing examples of design evaluated by experts in this webinar, you’ll feel much more confident that you’re making the best design decisions for your organization and your audience. (Plus, it’s fun!)

Once you’ve done the webinar, you might want to check out Donor Power Blog’s Stupid Nonprofit Ads archive and Vincent Flander’s irreverant Web Pages That Suck (his checklists are very useful)–another source for what not to do and why. Then jump over to the Council on Foundation’s annual excellence in communication awards for an archive of some great designs in annual reports, magazines, reports, campaigns, and Web sites. The more examples you see of poorly done and well done designs, the better you’ll be able to judge what designers give you.


31 ways for nonprofits to save money on communications

flickr/Daniel Y. Go

flickr/Daniel Y. Go

If you’re really chafing under 2009 budget constraints, try this exercise.

List all your communications projects for the rest of this budget year and prioritize each from the standpoint of how important it is in meeting your strategic communications objectives. Eliminate the bottom 20% of that list.

It may seem drastic, but it also might surprise you how little effect it has on your communications impact. There’s never been a better time to cut programs and products that don’t contribute significantly to your end goals. It can give you extra time and money to focus on more effective tactics.

Below are some other ways you can squeeze impact from a smaller budget. But first, a word of caution.

You’re top priority is always effectiveness. If you find cheap paper but it doesn’t do what you need it to do, or you find an internal staff member who can take photos but they aren’t high quality–those savings are not really savings. The goal is to explore small ways of cutting costs without lessening the impact of your communications. Keep that in mind as you look over this list of ideas.

  • Cut down on meeting time. Free your staff up to get more work done so you have to outsource less. Eliminate most information-sharing meetings by using other kinds of internal communication. Meet only when you need a decision or action.
  • Hold your staff accountable for managing their budgets. Monitor slippage and tie it to performance review.
  • Attack all areas of cost, not just what you spend out-of-pocket. Look at internal staffing/overhead costs, and ask the tough question: Would I better off outsourcing this function?
  • Curb your enthusiasm. Do what you absolutely need to do well. Then—only if you have extra time and money—take on new projects. This is a time to think about what you can take off your plate, not what you can add.
  • Find volunteers, unpaid interns, or short-term lower-paid staff to keep up with the daily routine of maintaining relationships and accurate contact data, and doing follow-up tasks. Once the routine has been explained, these workers shouldn’t require a lot of supervision.
  • Cull and update your mailing lists. You cannot believe how much postage you’ll waste if you don’t. Add “address service requested” to the mailing label of one of your newsletters (or another mailer) to improve the accuracy of your list.
  • Be ruthless about which publications you really need to produce. Don’t rely on: “We’ve always done it this way.”
  • Eliminate some of your printed publications and publish online PDFs instead, to save on printing and mailing.
  • Group print jobs together to save on press time. This means you have to plan in advance.
  • Have your printer/designer analyze everything from paper stock and size to number of halftones and colors to see if you can shave costs.
  • For important publications, ask your designers to try to leverage free or discounted paper from paper companies.
  • Take your own digital photos and video. There are plenty of online sources that can teach you to do this well. (My Thursday blog post this week will give you some resources for this.)
  • Use free online stock photos. (See my April 16 post for sources.)
  • Can you eliminate a conference or workshop and replace it with a less expensive webinar?
  • Ask your board members if they know printing or design vendors who might offer discounts or even pro bono work to your nonprofit.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel unless you have to. Adapt the great ideas of others (but absolutely no plagiarism!) There are many places online to find design inspirations for all kinds of communications.
  • Instead of attending professional conferences, make use of free professional development opportunities online in the field of communications (webinars, blogs, etc.).
  • Use every free tool you can get on the internet—photo and audio editing tools, jargon finders, Web site analytics, PitchEngine, Google Docs, SlideShare, JS-Kit, and much more. (For ideas, select “freetools” on the ImpactMax tagcloud. I highlight a new free tool every Thursday.)
  • If you’re still using a clipping bureau to track media coverage of your organization, use free online Google alerts instead. Set up alerts for your organization’s name and acronym, your CEO’s name, and other top executives’ names. You can also set up temporary alerts for special keywords related to your media relations tactics.
  • If you’re considering using a low-cost, online vendor for emails, enewsletters, teleconferences, or webinars, be sure to take advantage of the free trials they offer to test their services.
  • Small nonprofits may want to put wish lists for in-kind contributions in their newsletters (e.g., perfectly working electronics like digital cameras, video cams, printers, etc. and new office supplies—whatever is needed).
  • If you need a quick, low-cost design, consider 99 designs, where you can hold a little online contest for a project.
  • Talk to instructors at local colleges offering design courses to see if you can make the design of one of your major publications into a class assignment or contest. This takes advance planning to give instructors enough time to prepare. Be sure you control the final decision.
  • Talk to journalism or creative writing program graduate program directors to explore what kind of talented writing interns you might be able to place with your organization.
  • Cut spending on special events and galas. Think about lower cost events that have more of a programmatic context.
  • Do more fundraising through email than higher cost direct mail. (But make it permission based.)
  • Use free Web 2.0 media as alternatives to traditional paid communication channels. But remember, while they’re free, these media take staff time and thoughtful planning to use well.
  • Use email news releases rather than printed snail mail. You save on paper, printing, and postage, and reporters prefer email.
  • Explore partnerships with businesses related to your issues or in your geographic area. They can sponsor events, underwrite publications and advertising, etc. But know they will want recognition in return.
  • Leverage your staff expertise. Encourage staff members to publish articles and accept speaking engagements to help you raise your organization’s visibility.
  • Network, network, network. Partner and collaborate to cut costs. Share video cams. Share webmasters. Share copywriters.

What cost-saving ideas would you add to this list?

Thanks to LinkedIn contributors Janet de Acevedo Macdonald, Bridget Bevis, Jonathan Carter, Jill Eckhoff-King, Elizabeth Flynn, Jeffrey Kramer, Randy Milanovic, and Ed Peabody. Their smart ideas are part of this list.

CC photo credit: Daniel Y. Go


Cheap authenticity > chic advertising



Every week I volunteer at a local free store to sort through donated goods and put them on shelves and racks. The next day 500 “shoppers” come through this very small space and get what they need. The place operates on a shoestring budget and relies heavily on volunteers.

Every month I get a four-page, black and white, laser-printed newsletter from this free store. It’s not particularly attractive–no big photos, no beautiful typography or lay-out, no fancy envelope. But I read every word. The same is true for the newsletter of another very small nonprofit I support that runs organic gardening programs for low-income youth.

I’m someone who winces when I see a poorly done nonprofit newsletter. But there’s a difference between poorly done and cheaply produced. Both these newsletters have tremendous impact on my loyalty to these two organizations—although they are probably the cheapest, least “slick” publications I receive. They’re a great reminder to me that: 1) print still has a place in marketing and 2) authenticity trumps sophistication.

They are models of “impact” storytelling, offering a first-person glimpse of the effect a small organization has on its beneficiaries. You can see very clearly what your support makes possible. The free store newsletter is written by the director—every word. In addition to less-than-perfect, fun, impromptu photos of volunteers, she shares two or three stories about the people who’ve been helped by the store that month—including their moving reactions of gratitude.

She writes like she’s talking to you, and each story takes you into a world where the smallest kindness can tip the scales, can literally save someone’s life. The homeless woman who needed warm clothes, sleeping bags, and yes—a few toys—for her children. The man who needed clothes for a job interview, who upon leaving—asked why the store’s workers were being so nice to him. The woman who returned with donations two years after the free store helped her get back on her feet. The family that marveled at unexpectedly being given free Easter baskets for their four children. The many magical instances where just what someone desperately needs is donated the next day.

The gardening newsletter packs the same punch. Amid homey recipes are interviews with kids who do the gardening—again, written by the director. You hear in the kids’ own words how the experience has led them to eat better, become good cooks for their families, understand basic business practices, and think about their future with more hope and direction. (Some even invent recipes!) There are wonderful, amateur, black and white photos of planting season, the harvest festival, and the program’s booth at the farmer’s market. And, like the free store newsletter, there’s always a “wish list” of in-kind goods the organization needs at that moment. A donation response envelope is included, but there’s no other ask…only proof of impact.

It’s so real. That’s all I can say. These newsletters focus on changes in everyday lives, not lofty missions or sweeping programs. I get dozens of professionally created nonprofit newsletters every month and toss most without a second thought. But these two poor cousins—in all their humble enthusiasm—are read and remembered. Small nonprofits—take heart!

This is not to say that nonprofits should abandon well designed, well written publications—only a reminder not to rely on high production quality in an age where content, impact, and authenticity rule.

CC photo credit: Oddsock

NEWS: In a few weeks, I’ll be publishing my second free eBook here–Best Practices: Nonprofit Direct Mail.


Friday the 13th Entertainment: Two TED talks and 10 trends you NEED to know about

ted-captureHere are two TED talks that will raise your spirits and get you excited, and 10 trends to get your brain buzzing. All of these are relevant to the work of nonprofits and foundations!

Watch this TED talk  first—it’s Tim Berners-Lee on the next stage of development for the Web–from documents to data. (He’s the guy who invented the World Wide Web.)

Foundations and nonprofits have so much valuable data they could share for the betterment of the world–do it! (Don’t be a data-hugger!) Here’s the guy to convince you.

Now watch this one—which was referred to by Tim. This is Hans Rosling, a Swedish global health professor who shows how data can be creatively visualized and change our understanding of the developed and developing world. He’s here to prove the impossible is possible. Wow–I could grow to love data.

Now read this often amazing article from Time about 10 big ideas that are changing our world that everyone needs to know about.