Free Tools: Visual Timelines



Facebook isn’t the only place you may want to use an interactive visual timeline to tell the story of your organization’s evolution and accomplishments.

Lucky for all of us, there are some new FREE timeline tools out there that nonprofit communicators can make good use of: Tiki-toki, Timeline JS, and Dipity. Examples of each are to the right.

Check them all out and choose according to your needs. Of course, there are premium versions to buy that offer more flexibility, but any of the free versions probably would work fine for most nonprofits. There are several differences among them.

Tiki-Toki allows you (makes you) add months and days to the dates of your stories (at least I haven’t found a way around that!). That works great if your story takes place over a month or a week, but it doesn’t work so well for anniversaries where you just want to note years. You can only create one timeline and you can’t embed it on your website without upgrading to a premium account (lowest upgrade is $5 per month). You can share your timeline, just not embed it. There are also some limits on images hosted on the Tiki-toki server.



TimelineJS  is good if you’ve got tech support in building your timeline. It’s easy for the viewer to use, but not so straightforward for the person creating it. Personally, I found Dipity that simplest to create with. You can get a timeline going in 15 minutes. And I like the way Dipity hides the detailed information–you have to click on it. That makes the big messages in the headlines really pop, and lessens the distraction of the reader. Yet, anyone who wants more details can easily get them. Also, you have the choice of viewing a Dipity timeline as a flipbook or list.

The free version of Dipity allows you to create 3 timelines with a maximum 150 events. These timelines can be embedded and shared. Note–your timeline will have ads on the page unless you buy a premium version ($5 per month minimum). Also, Dipity allows you to sync your timeline with your twitter, facebook, tumblr and other social media so the timeline is automatically updated with those posts. (This feature could come in handy if your timeline is tracking campaign progress.) Here’s a good video tutorial on starting out with Dipity.

Before you even start thinking about using one of these cool tools, you need to have a good reason. Strategy first! None of us have much time to learn tools just for the fun of it. But, if your organization has an anniversary coming up or you’re trying to tell a story that rolls out over time, visual timelines can be a lot more effective than scrolling narratives. Like infographics, they offer easily digestible bites rather than a huge meal of text/photos. Consider the possibilities… And if anyone knows of other free timeline creation tools, please leave a comment below.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: Since I wrote this post, Dipity has experienced long-term technical problems that have prevented creators to edit or add to their timelines. It’s been three weeks and the problem still exists. What’s worse, Dipity hasn’t been forthcoming with information to its users about the nature of the problem. They keep promising it will be fixed by such and such date, but that never happens. I moved my Dipity timeline data to Whenintime instead–based on a referral from another Dipity user. I don’t like the timeline mechanics as well, but it does offer an interesting blog template. Check it out, or one of the other two free timelines above. I can no longer recommend Dipity!

Direct mail envelopes–five ideas for nonprofit fundraising

ricky(Another stellar guest post from nonprofit fund raising expert Rick Schwartz!)

My family usually shops for groceries with canvas bags that I pick up at conferences. But every third or fourth week we ask the checkout clerk to use paper bags instead, so we can use them to recycle newspapers, my son’s homework assignments, and about 99.5% of the direct mail we get, unopened.

A good half of my direct mail is from nonprofits and, even in my modestly generous home, nine out of 10 new appeals go unopened into the recycling bag.

I hate to say it, but yours may have been one of them. Too bad. With very little cost, effort, and imagination, you could have gotten me to at least open the envelope. Then who knows what might have happened!

Your first competitor is indifference

So says branding expert Harry Beckwith. A boring envelope signals boring contents. Sadly, experience has proven that true. Just one more lackluster appeal for money. Do you open those letters at your house? Me neither.

Remember, direct mail is a science, not an art. As such, marketers test everything about an envelope:

  • color and quality of paper
  • shape and size of envelope
  • postage stamp or bulk mail indicia (Herschell Gordon Lewis, Direct Mail Copy That Sells, recommends a postage meter)
  • “teaser” (Robert Bly, The Copywriter’s Handbook, says “no teaser” unless it’s really good)
  • typeface (gotten any ‘hand-addressed’ mail yet?)

Truth is, some methods work until consumers catch on to them. Then direct mail marketers have to find something new. Here are five ideas gleaned from real appeals I’ve received that made me at least stop and think. Most of these should fit into reasonable budgets; you just have to print the envelope.

Hey, I get something for free (benefits)

Some effective envelopes appeal to most people’s desire to get some kind of benefit (other than moral) from giving to your organization. You do have stuff to offer: maps of great hiking trails, 10 tips on choosing a doctor, note cards, a down-to-earth explanation of charitable giving. No, you’re not selling your soul to the devil by “selling” your nonprofit.

Words you might find yourself using: “free” and “enclosed”. Robert Bly suggests you include something that can be felt in the envelope. It doesn’t have to be expensive, something like a calendar magnet. (Be aware that some studies show that giveaways like tote bags and stuffed animals lead only to short, superficial relationships.)

What the heck’s in the envelope? (curiosity)

Some envelopes raise questions whose answers you must know, but can only find inside. Two examples from Planned Parenthood include envelope copy that reads: “They’re coming after our organization with everything they’ve got” and “More unintended pregnancies in 6 easy steps.” Another organization touts a curiosity-arousing “ultimate offer” on its envelope.

I’m special (exclusivity)

Making donors feel they are part of an elite group leads directly to the largest gifts (in many cases). Herschell Gordon Lewis says four words work here: “private”, “advance”, “invitation”, and “exclusive”.  Recently, the Smithsonian sent me something announcing on the envelope that I was one of a few select readers in my state to be chosen to complete a survey. (The envelope is pictured above.) Other appeal envelopes I receive come from celebrities or luminaries who sign their names in the return address slot. Another envelope told me” “We’re not for everyone, but then, maybe you’re not everyone.”

Uh, oh! (fear)

It’s sometimes powerful to call attention to a looming threat. Examples include an envelope bearing the message “A gathering storm of anti-Jewish hate” or one warning that “The religious right wants to change the way you live.”

To dream the impossible dream! (a call to arms)

Nonprofits should excel at enthusiastically stating the essential challenge. That’s what makes the boring envelopes above so unforgivable. Tell the prospective supporter what he or she is fighting for. Real-life examples include envelopes with the following printed messages: ” It’s one of the most powerful and dangerous initiation rights imaginable–and every day more than 5,000 girls are at risk” or “94 million American children with no health care; zero has been done to stop global warming; 155,000 US troops stuck in Iraq—49 US senators are behind it all.”

I’m so embarrassed (guilt)
Guilt: the gift that keeps on giving. I know LOTS of nonprofit folks who truly believe that everybody who is not supporting their cause should feel guilty. I almost always find that the nonprofit just hasn’t made its case well. That said, guilt can be used in strange ways. One example is a photo envelope of a mother polar bear and two vulnerable cubs with the headline “Please help.”

A few other ideas
Other effective envelopes I’ve seen:

  • blank except for the recipient’s handwritten address
  • a personal note (in real ink) on the envelope
  • way oversized envelopes

Your turn
There’s very little about envelope ideas above that you can’t tailor and re-create economically for your nonprofit of almost any size. Follow these steps:

  • Know the dramatic selling points of your cause
  • Package the information your nonprofit can share
  • Understand the motivations of your donors
  • Save sample envelopes you love (and hate)
  • Test ideas on your friends and family. Don’t give them more than four seconds to look at the envelope.
  • Devote the time and resources necessary to make the envelope work.

Thanks, Rick!