Data for Good: Why Non-Profits Should Think More about Dataviz

Lessons learned from a non-profit insider

Jessica Davison
Jan 20 · 9 min read
Laptop showing data dashboard
Laptop showing data dashboard
Image source: Unsplash

Recently, MacKenzie Scott stunned the non-profit community by giving more than $4.1 billion to 384 organizations. Her gift was remarkable not only in size and potential impact, but also in how she came to her investment decision. She asked her team take a deep dive into the data about each organization to understand community need, program results, and the organization’s ability to effectively manage and use a potential gift. As a result, she was able to provide millions in upfront, unrestricted funding to non-profits to do what they do best — improve lives and serve communities. Increasingly, philanthropists like Scott and individual donors are using data to inform decisions about how they invest in and support non-profits. Data visualization can therefore serve as a bridge to help communicate the non-profit’s impact.

Throughout my 15+ years working in the non-profit sector, I’ve experienced data visualization from different angles. My first brush with data visualization was as a family counselor supporting my supervisor by creating monitoring and evaluation reports. Then, I moved into a more data-centric role as an internal evaluator, managing all aspects of program evaluation. Now, one of the many hats that I wear at United Way of Greater Houston includes supporting other non-profit professionals in learning about and improving skills around data, evaluation, and continuous quality improvement, which we define as the systematic use of data to improve the effectiveness of programs and services and to communicate their value. Non-profits in the social service sector often have a wealth of data at their fingertips, including data tied directly to the services they provide (aka program-level data), financial accounting data, and donor data. In my community — Houston, Texas — we have easy access to many data sources, including community-level and neighborhood-level data. Non-profits work diligently to manage their data to show the value of their work and further their mission. However, non-profit staff, who often juggle multiple duties and responsibilities on the job, may not have the knowledge or capacity to create data visualizations.

The act of creating a data visualization can seem overwhelming to some people, and can also seem like a luxury when managing competing responsibilities and reporting requirements from funders. However, the time spent on data visualization is well worth the investment. The ability to create data visualizations is a muscle that can be strengthened and conditioned.

Winding road through sunlight hills and valleys
Winding road through sunlight hills and valleys
Integrating data visualization into non-profits is a journey. (Source: Unsplash)

My journey with data visualization in the non-profit sector includes sharing data with board members, staff, and other stakeholders as an internal evaluator. The most recent step along my journey has been facilitating a learning cohort among non-profit professionals to help build their knowledge of data visualization and and storytelling with data. This has been an amazing opportunity to watch staff without graphics or design backgrounds increase their confidence with visualizing data for different audiences. Through this process, I have learned that non-profits should spend just as much time, care, and effort communicating our data as we do managing our data.

Some overarching lessons that I have learned include:

Leadership sets the tone in any non-profit organization, which means that buy-in from leadership is essential to support and sustain data visualization. Without support from leadership, any attempt at data visualization will be trivial. Support can be shown through leadership’s attitudes and behaviors toward using data visualization in strategic planning, decision making, and external communications. The staff who will be creating visualizations need access to professional development resources, tools, and time to create. As leadership becomes familiar and comfortable with data visualization, they can empower additional staff to support data visualization as well.

Garnering support from co-workers can help, too. Staff working toward the same goal can be a great sounding board or test audience for draft visualizations, providing thoughtful edits and suggestions. Buy-in for communicating data effectively should be felt throughout the organization. It might seem obvious, but organizations do not always realize that data visualization can be used beyond fundraising — but data visualization can be leveraged within daily operations, including marketing, accounting, and program functions. I realized this when co-workers from different departments reached out for feedback on how they could better communicate their data. With buy-in, the sky’s the limit! I really appreciated this article on creating a data visualization culture:

Non-profits are faced with myriad potential audience members. Each audience member will have their own experience with data: some love it; some hate it. As part of the learning cohort that I led, we crowdsourced (in no particular order) different audience members that we’ve encountered along the data literacy continuum. We continue to build out this continuum by keeping two things in mind:

  1. No spot along the data literacy continuum is “bad.” Our work is to identify and know what levels of data literacy could be present in our audience.
  2. Mix and match as you like — meaning, one person can identify with multiple points along the continuum. For example, they could identify as both data savvy and data curious. To each their own.
Titled “Who might you encounter along the data literacy continuum?”, a line extends from “Data phobic” to “Data enthusiast”
Titled “Who might you encounter along the data literacy continuum?”, a line extends from “Data phobic” to “Data enthusiast”
Crowdsourced data literacy continuum from the author

This love/hate and everything-in-between relationship creates a minefield when sharing data visualizations. For example, non-profit staff have a strong understanding and passion for the mission of the organization, but it is not guaranteed that those staff members are data savvy. When communicating data with staff that are data phobic, it can help to spend time explaining the role that person plays with the data (e.g., collecting the data, serving the client, etc.). As staff become increasingly comfortable with data, the data can be accessed, understood, and acted upon to effect change and further the impact of the non-profit. This article highlights the importance of data literacy for all employees:

The same is true for leadership, including board members. Board members typically have minimal time but maximal attention as they are volunteers lending their support to the organization. As evidenced by MacKenzie Scott’s generous contribution to the non-profit community, philanthropists are eager to use data to better understand and invest in organizations. Community members and other stakeholders can be eyes and ears to the impact of the non-profit, which might require additional background information before diving into the data. Whether a board member, philanthropist, or a community member, everyone has their own unique relationship and literacy with data. We have to ensure we are communicating data in a way that our audience can see and hear it.

Just as understanding the audience’s level of data literacy is important, it is also important to understand your own level of data literacy to meet your audience where they are. The “right” data visualization that works for you may be “wrong” for your audience. I’ve seen and experienced this stumbling block firsthand. By leveraging careful self-reflection when designing the data visualizations, non-profits can ensure that we are speaking the same data language as our audience.

My biggest existential question with data is wondering, “What’s it all for?” As non-profits strive to be more data-informed and staff become more data savvy, what is it all leading to? When we align buy-in and data literacy (“right audience” and “right data”), we can move toward action. Action is what elicits positive change within an individual, organization, neighborhood, or community. Data visualization can also provide a platform to inform, motivate, and seek additional opportunities to expand and broaden the mission of the organization. I’ve seen non-profits use data visualization to better target neighborhoods to provide services, to identify gaps in program goals, and to build awareness, thus increasing donations and contributions. As an example, I leveraged data visualization in my organization to communicate the need and impact of financial hardship across Greater Houston area:

Top: Slopegraph showing change from 2016 to 2018. Bottom: Various charts showing showing financial hardship.
Top: Slopegraph showing change from 2016 to 2018. Bottom: Various charts showing showing financial hardship.
ALICE in Texas: A Financial Hardship Study (from the author)

Another opportunity for action through data visualization comes from coupling data visualization with client success stories. “Data storytelling” is a hot buzz word in the non-profit sector. It requires more than just adding data to a client story. The best synergies occur when blending data, narrative, and visuals. This trifecta can amply your message and inspire action. The insights shared through data storytelling can broaden perspectives and shine a light on the impact that non-profits have in our lives.

Achieving professional competency in data visualization can seem like a journey not for the faint of heart, especially for those in the non-profit sector. However, the data visualization community has provided an outlet to best practices, current research, and conversation among experts and amateurs.

At my organization, our learning cohort was designed as a community of practice to improve professional competency by engaging in shared inquiry around data storytelling and data visualization. The cohort participants were a melting pot of educational backgrounds, non-profit experience, professional roles, and points along their data visualization learning journey. The cohort met over four months (nine, 90-minute sessions) to examine, explore, and apply principles of data storytelling and data visualization. Each session included a presentation, discussion, and application through small group activities on research, best practices, and trends in data visualization. Between sessions, participants would review either an article, webinar recording, or YouTube clip specific to the topic of the week. They would share reflections on a Microsoft Teams channel.

Collage of data visualizations from Learning Cohort Challenge presentations.
Collage of data visualizations from Learning Cohort Challenge presentations.
Collage from Learning Cohort Challenge. Credit: Tracey Burnett-Greenup, MS, LPC-I; Kristen Deppe, Ph.D.; Elizabeth Tisdale; Emily Kremer; Kristen Dohle, M.Ed.

The cohort participants were also tasked with a Learning Cohort Challenge, in which they had to create a data story and visualization using ALICE data. They were strongly encouraged to add in other data as well, like program, community, or neighborhood data from trusted sources. The theme for the challenge was “Strong Families Create Strong Communities.” During the last session, each participant shared their challenge story and visualizations with an audience that included their organization’s leadership and United Way staff. Each participant put an incredible amount of thought and effort into their presentation, taking care to apply the concepts that they learned. Throughout the learning cohort process, participants were able to lean on each other for support and learn from one another. I’m excited to see how they will apply what they’ve learned within their non-profits. The cohort will continue to meet quarterly to continue their learning journeys.

My hope for the new year is that more non-profit professionals will embark on their own data visualization journey to learn how to better communicate their organization’s impact.

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Pile of oyster shells
Pile of oyster shells
The data visualization world is my oyster. (Source: Unsplash)

The data visualization world has been my oyster. There are still lessons to be learned, and I’m here for it. What lessons have you learned? What are your thoughts? What opportunities do you see for non-profits to leverage data visualization? Let’s chat on the #connect-non-profit DVS Slack channel!

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Jessica Davison is a Senior Program Manager at United Way of Greater Houston. Jessica is a graduate of McNeese State University with a Bachelor of Science in marketing and finance, and a Master of Arts in psychology. She works with internal and external stakeholders to design, implement, and evaluate program effectiveness and continuous quality improvement. Jessica serves on the Board of Directors for the Texas Evaluation Network as Treasurer.

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The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

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Jessica Davison

Written by

Data enthusiast for the nonprofit sector. Thought partner and professional question asker.

Nightingale

The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

Jessica Davison

Written by

Data enthusiast for the nonprofit sector. Thought partner and professional question asker.

Nightingale

The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

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