Nonprofits and Libraries: It's Time to Move Beyond the Pie Chart

This blog post was originally published on the blog. Whether you're looking for more creative ways to show your circulation data or want to educate your patrons on data visualization, this series can help you get started. You'll be creating awesome visualizations in no time!

Better ways to visualize your data, including bar charts, line charts, scatterplots, and maps

We know nonprofits and libraries gather piles of data, from program outcomes to constituent data to fundraising or advocacy campaign results. And you probably struggle to turn that data into meaningful insights that can improve your work or tell your organization's story.

That's why TechSoup has partnered with Tableau on a new blog series called "Beyond the Pie Chart."

Have you ever

  • Struggled to translate a bunch of boring spreadsheets into a visual format that's easy for your board, funders, or potential donors to understand?
  • Tried to create a report and couldn't find a chart or graph that would clearly illustrate your point?
  • Thought that analyzing your data was complicated or scary?

Then this series is for you!

Why Data Visualization Matters for Nonprofits and Libraries

Data visualization is simply taking your data — rows and columns — and presenting it in an intuitive visual format.

Picture a spreadsheet with a long list of individual donations. It doesn't tell you very much. Now think about making a chart comparing donation amounts for the past three years. You can quickly spot trends in donations over time. Congratulations, that chart is a basic data visualization!

If you understand a few data visualization best practices, you'll be able to learn more from your data. Some charts or graphs are better at answering particular types of questions. Choosing the right visualization method means you get more insight in less time.

The right chart or graph also shows data in a way that people can easily understand, so you can tell a better story about your organization's important work. That's why we're sharing basic visualization tips in Beyond the Pie Chart.

Why You Need to Move Beyond the Pie Chart

Pie charts are one of the most commonly used (and misused) charts. Tableau's handy white paper on Visual Analysis Best Practices explains why they're often not the best choice:

"We suggest avoiding them for two reasons: 1) The human visual system is not very good at estimating area, and 2) You can only compare slices that are right next to each other. For example, in the chart below, can you tell which slice is the largest or how the Western region differs across age groups?

Example of pie charts showing user demographics by age group and region

"It can be difficult to make these comparisons with pie charts. But what about bar charts? Below you'll see the same data, but plotted on a percent-total bar chart. Can we answer our earlier questions with this chart? Sure! We now see that the 25 – 40 age group in the Western region is the largest slice. In addition, we can now see the regional differences across all age groups much more easily."

Example of bar charts showing user demographics by age group and region

Beyond the Pie chart will help you master pie charts, bar charts, scatterplots, and more.

How You Can Do More with Your Data

These data visualization tips are just the beginning of what you can do with your data. Back to the fundraising example: Do you want to compare fundraising campaign results to see which outreach method is most effective?

Or see how many times the average donor gives, the size of their donations, and if those numbers have changed over time? Or dig into demographic data to understand whether factors like age, gender, and income affect who gives and how they give? Maybe it's answering a question as simple as mapping where all your top donors live in a particular city?

You might be able to answer those questions with your spreadsheet. But you would spend a lot of time crunching data, only to do it all over again when you have another month of results or someone wants to compare results for a different time period.

A visual analytics tool will help you answer these kinds of questions much more quickly. Visual analytics tools allow you to analyze and present your data in a visual format without the time-consuming, manual effort of creating (and endlessly updating) many different charts and graphs. For example, with a visual analytics tool you could create an interactive fundraising dashboard that summarizes key results. You could then drill down into your dashboard to answer all the questions above in just a few clicks.

Ready to dive into visual analytics? Tableau's TechSoup donation program can help you create powerful, interactive data visualizations from almost any data source.

Get Tableau now

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Image 1: Wes Holing

Images 2 and 3: Tableau