This article is written by Tara Todras-Whitehill, a visual storytelling consultant.
In your fundraising and marketing communications, visuals are crucial in helping to cement an idea or a narrative in the mind of your audience. For instance, the statistics of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe were published in newspapers every day of 2016, but it wasn’t until the harrowing photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi was shared that the crisis made global headlines and world leaders were (albeit briefly) forced into enacting more humanitarian policies.
Statistics may make for a convincing argument, but visual narratives establish an emotional connection that incites people to take action. Below are a few ways your nonprofit can turn its stories and messages—even those that might seem non-visual in nature—into narratives that engage and compel supporters to act.
1. Put Your Audience in Your Beneficiaries’ Shoes
The World Bank did an ethnographic study about digital financial services in Sub-Saharan Africa and wanted to find a way for more people to engage with this issue.
Mobile banking and financial security are critical for millions of the world’s most vulnerable populations, but at a quick glance, these topics may not seem interesting to a larger audience. In order to help people who don’t live in this reality understand the implications of the study, the organization had to find a way to have them walk in the shoes of those most affected.
I headed a team that created an interactive role-playing game, in which the viewer plays the part of an enterprising young student working at the market, or an older worker seeking financial independence and security for his savings. The viewer is challenged through a series of real-world scenarios to make decisions about what to do with their money, as well as pay the consequences or reap the rewards.
At the end of the game, they are left with a greater understanding of the issues facing the handling of cash in parts of the world where banking isn’t easily available.
Games can be complicated but they can also be basic and impactful. If it’s infeasible to create a role-playing experience, consider how else you can gamify your projects. A quiz can be an effective, fun and simple way to help your audience understand a topic.
2. Allow the People You Serve to Speak for Themselves
In this example, “Syria Street,” published by the ICRC, delves into the experience of the dividing line of inter-communal strife in Tripoli, Lebanon, by bringing viewers into the lives of the people who live there.
It brings together video clips—so short they’re more like animated photos—with the stories of local residents in their own words. Viewers meet Hana Awad, a chef for a local NGO; see the trucks passing the roast chicken shops; hear the sound of the mosque, a passing motorbike. We are brought to the street itself in an almost immersive experience.
This compilation gives the viewer a quick peek at what it means to live there and the challenges faced by people living with poor sanitation, frequent blackouts, and violence.
Visuals and audio elements make stories even more impactful. Create videos that bring viewers into the world of the people you serve. Interview beneficiaries and have them share their stories in their own words. You can experiment with either interviews featuring one or two stories, or a compilation of short clips like the example above.
3. Leverage Illustrations to Connect the Dots
Some stories can’t be documented as they happen. Moments of extreme vulnerability or exploitation are typically not times that lend themselves to taking a picture or a video. Illustration can be a powerful tool to reflect on moments that otherwise lack visuals.
There is a growing movement at the crossroads of graphic novels and journalism in which artists recreate stories, capturing moments of fear or tension.
For instance, with their “Motherhood in Crisis” series, Al Jazeera Labs have blended illustration with video interviews to shine a light on the struggles of women in Sierra Leone and the healthcare of a country in which survival rates are problematic for children under the age of five, and women who give birth.
The artistic renderings fill the void of documentary evidence to tell a more intimate story than could ever otherwise have been possible.
There are many different ways to use illustrations, some which are basic and others that are more detailed. If your team doesn’t have a graphic designer, you might consider hiring a freelancer to help explain and visualize some of your work as needed.
4. Create Interactive Visuals
An interactive asset is an excellent way to drive direct engagement with your audience. One successful example comes from The Guardian‘s interactive guide to the developments in the UK’s National Health Service over the past 70 years.
The piece invites readers to trace on a blank graph their expectations of funding levels, bed provision, and so on, before the real levels are revealed. It’s a play on the classic bait-and-switch—”you thought, but really…”—and there’s a reason the format has been so popular over the years. There’s a chance to be proven right, a surprise, and finally, a learning opportunity all rolled into one.
The publication could have presented the story as plain text and given the stats about rising spending and falling provision, but that would have been much less immediately impactful. The story could also have been told with static graphs, which would still have gotten the point across. But by inviting interaction, the story designers are challenging the audience to really think about the issue at hand, building a relationship between reader and data to deepen the understanding of the narrative.
Consider how your data can be visualized. Interactives are a great way to go, but if that’s not possible, try to see where your story lies in your data to create compelling graphs and illustrations.
Remember there are always creative ways to make a visual story that will connect with your viewers. It just might mean brainstorming and being creative about how to tackle the project. Use these ideas to create fresh visuals that engage your supporters and connect them more deeply with your cause.
Tara Todras-Whitehill is an award-winning visual storyteller with more than 20 front pages of The New York Times. After accumulating over a decade of experience working in the field and as a founder of a creative agency, she now also works with organizations to maximize their impact by helping them become better storytellers through consulting and bespoke workshops.
Get inspired at this year’s free, virtual nonprofit conference with over 50 speakers from across the world.