Data visualization tools to help nonprofits tell a story

Center for New Leadership - January 25, 2017 - 1:13pm
By Bob Lawson, Founder, Sustainable Digital

Data can be powerful stuff. Properly analyzed, it can help you understand the world around you in new ways. And when properly presented, data helps you tell your story, be it to donors, foundations or other supporters of your nonprofit.

Unfortunately, data isn’t easy.  Data on its own is first and foremost difficult for most people to interpret. And second, it’s boring.

This is why it is so important to get beyond numbers to help others understand your data in non-numeric ways so they can easily grasp its meaning and implications.

Fortunately, there are a number of software tools that help you do just this and most are free to nonprofit organizations. Let’s start with some of the more obvious tools and work our way to one with which you may not yet be familiar.


Microsoft Excel

Part of the MS Office suite of products, Excel is that software with those boring columns of data in spreadsheets. What is less well known are the powerful built-in tools to help you turn your data into colorful pie charts and line graphs. Until recently creating even a simple chart was frustrating, at best, with Excel. Fortunately, Microsoft has improved things considerably in recent versions of the software, allowing you to easily customize many parts of each graph or chart.

Even someone like me, who has long disliked Microsoft products, must admit that Excel’s charts and graphs are now easy to use. And more often than not, Excel is already sitting on our computer. If it is not, it is available for free or at a very low cost to nonprofits (for more information, see


My Maps from Google

This online software is different than the usual Google Maps, although it obviously springs from the same technology.  My Maps allows you to upload a spreadsheet that contains both data and geographic information, such as street, town, state, and country names. Google takes each address and geocodes it, placing a pin on a map.

Pins can be color-coded in different ways and all data related to that geographical location becomes visible when the user clicks on that pin.

This service is completely browser-based, with nothing to install on your computer. Maps can be shared via email or embedded on a website. And as with a good many things from Google, My Maps is available for use at no charge.

For more information, see:


Tableau Public

Tableau Public helps you create interactive maps, charts and graphs that make data more meaningful.  Using some relatively simple controls, you can create some complex visualizations.

The controls are indeed simple, but there are quite a lot of them and they can be used in many combinations. So it is a good thing that Tableau has produced a series of 18 videos to help you get started at Yes, this is a lot of videos, but don’t get scared. It’s complex, but it’s simple at the same time.  And in all cases, the results are on a completely different level than what you can achieve with My Maps or Excel.

Obviously, professional statisticians and M&E specialists will have an advantage using Tableau, but the rest of us mortals can do surprisingly well.  You can start with various data sources, but normally you’d begin with an Excel file or Google Sheet. Import the file to Tableau and the fun starts.

One nice feature is that when you share or publish your results online, the interactivity is maintained, enabling the user to apply filters and control the way data is displayed in various ways.

Fact is that words don’t easily explain all you can do with Tableau.  Best to have a quick look at the videos, above. Seeing is believing.

 Tableau Public is a downloadable desktop app that runs either on Windows of Mac iOS. Resulting data presentations are viewed in a web browser.

Tableau Public is available at no charge.  The features available in this free version are generous.  The one possible catch is that the data visualizations you publish are automatically available to the general public. So this is not a good option for internal organizational data or other things you are not ready to make public. Other, more powerful, versions are available starting at almost $1000 per user, but there is a 2-year free license available to most nonprofits with budgets below $5 million a year. More info at:

More information about Tableau can be found at



Bob Lawson is the founder of Sustainable Digital (, based in Putney, Vermont. The firm offers technology training and audits for nonprofits and international NGOs. More information can be found at: