Nonprofit Storytelling With Data

Nonprofit storytelling with data is absolutely crucial for communication. While donors typically don’t respond to dry statistics, good visual storytelling with data can catch the eye of critical thinkers and curious donors.

Does nonprofit storytelling with data even work?

While the terms “storytelling with data” and “data visualization” are new, the concept has been around for over a hundred years. Let’s examine one of the earliest examples of nonprofit storytelling with data (or better yet, just “data storytelling”, since the word “nonprofit” wasn’t around back then!).

In 1853, the Crimean War began. It was a war between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, which was supported by the allies - Britain, France and Sardinia. The war was covered quite extensively in British newspapers: there were reports in The Times, stories from the front lines, and early photography. Here is a lithograph by William Simpson from that time.

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There were so many stories about the mismanagement of the war and the terrible conditions in which soldiers lived, there was a public outcry.

However, it was a case of the evidence struggling to convince. Very little was done to improve conditions. The British government provided one hospital train and sent 39 volunteer nurses to the war.

Research shows that even in the face of valid facts, some people retreat to moral positions or opinion in their arguments. They say "This is war; casualties happen". This avoidance tactic is the underpinning of bias, and can destroy a reasonable dialogue and critical thinking. If you look at the lithograph, you yourself would probably struggle to see what could have been done. Except, perhaps, for the war to have been stopped. It appeals to the viewer's emotions, but not their critical thinking.

Florence Nightingale was one of the 39 volunteer nurses sent to the frontlines. After she came back in 1858, she published “The Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East" (below) and sent it to Queen Victoria. She also presented it to Members of Parliament and civil servants, who would have been unlikely to read or understand traditional statistical reports.

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If you haven't seen it before, this graphic indicates the number of deaths that occurred from preventable diseases (in blue); those that were the result of wounds (in red); and those due to other causes (in black).

Now guess what happened? Over the following years, she instigated a Royal Commission into the health of the army, which led to many reforms and transformed nursing. Those reforms influenced the very nature of modern healthcare; Florence Nightingale is sometimes still called the “mother of modern nursing” today.

This is one of the earliest examples of nonprofit storytelling with data. There is an important lesson in this story. People say they value accuracy and facts. Somehow, though, they let bias and emotion get in the way of understanding difficult subjects in terms of how they truly are. This is where data visualization can help us: by shining a light on facts on uncertain and difficult matters.

Why nonprofit storytelling with data?

If you’re thinking that a lot has changed since then, you’re wrong.

At the present time, text, photo and video are still the main digital media for nonprofit storytelling. The choice is obvious - photos and videos prove the fact that the problem is real, and requires attention.

Take a look at these photos from two different nonprofits:

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These photos are heartbreaking. They elicit an immediate response. The goal is to bring the viewer to the website, where more information is provided.

However, in today's timepressed world, few people get around to trying to find out more. And why should they? From pictures such as these above, it might not be clear what can be done. They lack context. They focus on getting a compassionate response and empathy, that sometimes will lead to donations. But unfortunately, today we are used to seeing human suffering.

Data visualization, on the other hand, focuses on facts. It is possible to pack a lot of information into a single data visualization, and this information will enter the brain as fast as the images- unlike the text, that few people actually read.

The key to great nonprofit storytelling with data

A good visual data storytelling guides viewers through a number of important stages. They should learn what the visualization is about and what its scope is. They should be able to evaluate all the factors involved and drill down to any additional information that is there, with the assurance that your data is reliable. They need to grasp the main value of the visualization, and apply reasoning to interpret it and commit to action. And if all of that is in place, they will love your storytelling with data, because it has guided them to a clear goal.