Visuals: A Nonprofit Storytelling Superpower

For a nonprofit, not only is an image worth a 1,000 words, it can be worth countless supporters, donations, and increased impact. The right visual at the right time (and place) can literally make all the difference.

Visuals are also great because they’re easy to use across multiple platforms, making content creation that much more efficient, and can improve your search engine rankings (SEO), at the same time. Read on to learn why, and get some tips on easy ways to create optimal images.

Why Visuals are so Important…and Effective

As humans, we evolved to recognize and relate to visual cues long before language—oral or written—was even possible. We still process images at a far greater rate than text, and are more likely to remember them.

Some Convincing Statistics on the Effects of Visuals


increase in view rates for content with images


increase in engagement for posts with images


of people respond better to images than text


of information transmitted to our brain is visual


of our brain is active in visual processing


faster processing by our brains of visuals than text

When it comes to online storytelling, visuals are a superpower that:

  • Increase empathy
  • Increase donations
  • Engage visual learning modality
  • Spark imagination
  • Break up long text
  • Boost SEO
  • Are better for visual learners
  • Are better for everyone

Images attract our attention, stir our emotions, and trigger reactions—especially when it comes to helping others.

Types of Online Visuals and their Uses

The term “visuals” can really be applied to anything that isn’t plain text online. Popular examples include:

  • Photos — Great for setting a tone (landscapes), showing the reality of a situation (photos of destruction, construction or items of scale) or connecting on a personal, human level (close-ups of individuals).

  • Illustrations and Flowcharts — Ideal for explaining something that can’t be contained in a single photo, such as a process or a hypothetical situation.

  • Infographics — A combination of charts, graphics and text that can give statistics a new life. Infographics are very popular for their ability to break down complex concepts and tell a story.

  • Animations & Slideshows — More eye-catching than still photos or images. Our brains are wired to focus long enough at moving objects to understand them, at the least to identify whether they are a threat or what they might portend.

  • Charts — The best way for representing trends over time or relationships between different elements in terms of size and/or time (x, y and z axes).

  • Logos — Using the logo of a well-known organization (including your own) is a shortcut to conjuring associations people have with the company, whether good or bad. (And if the logo here isn’t one you’re taking advantage of, take a moment to check out Amazon Smile for your nonprofit.)

  • Emojis — Once just the tool of the texting millennial, emojis have now permeated nearly all social media, and even email (MailChimp, for example, offers emojis in their subject lines). Why? Because people like them. Emoji use has been demonstrated to increase engagement rates.

  • Word Clouds — Not as popular as they were a few years ago, these are a fun way to get a lot of words into a representative shape, using size to give some terms more priority than others. Almost like a puzzle, we instinctively want to search out the different words contained in the shape.

  • Video — From movies to long-form animation, the power of video is undeniable. It would also require several articles to cover properly, so we’re going to skip it for now. If you want to some tools to get started, check out our nonprofit tools section.

  • …And any combination of the above — You can even have infographics overlaid on a photo as part of an illustration inserted into a video.

Where Can You Use Visuals to Boost Engagement?

Everywhere. In fact, as we mentioned above, one of the benefits of using visuals is that you can re-share them on multiple platforms, including:

  • Website pages
  • Articles/blog posts
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Pinterest
  • Twitter
  • YouTube

Social media platforms have realized how powerful and often viral images and videos can be, based on the fact that so many people like and share them. That’s why Instagram and Pinterest are so popular, YouTube is the #2 search engine in the world, and Facebook’s algorithms often give visual posts preferential treatment in a news feed.

Social Media Image Sizes Cheat Sheet 2017

Social Media Images Sizes Cheat Sheet

A detailed infographic from with all of the different size images that social media platforms prefer.

Each social media platform has specific preferences when it comes to image sizes. But don’t get bogged down in trying to make everything the perfect size. It’s better to have something that works than never getting it done because you want it to be perfect for every possible use.

For websites, visuals are a fantastic way to create empathetic connections and have been scientifically proven to elicit greater donations—making them an absolute requirement on donation pages and crowdfunding campaigns! The most powerful visuals are those of single individuals or unified groups (such as families), in need of help. The size and aspect ratio of images on your website is a lot more flexible, and will often vary with the layout you’re using.

Photos can Double Donations

Scientific studies have shown that a photo of one specific child will approximately double donations, especially when paired with a name. We connect to others on an individual basis, and identifying with the beneficiary of your services makes a potential donor more likely to act, and more likely to feel good about doing so!

Images are Great for SEO

Google also loves visuals. The search engine’s job is to find the best answers to people’s questions. Since visuals are so effective in relaying information, Google gives preferential treatment to pages that employ them (as long as there are proper “alt” tags with descriptions of the image), ranking those pages higher in search results, thus making them easier for people to find.

Simple and Effective Visual Ideas for Nonprofit Storytelling

Unlike the process of becoming a superhero in comic books, you can start using your new superpower without exposing yourself to toxic gasses, irradiated arachnids, or extensive interplanetary travel.

A few ideas for visuals you can make for your content without racking your brain or breaking your budget:

  • Infographics depicting:
    • How many beneficiaries did you impact last year
    • What percentage of the population needs your help
    • How many people supported your cause
    • How much money your generous supporters raised in your last fund drive, and how many schools will that build in Indonesia
    • How many locations (neighborhoods, cities, states, countries) are you operating in
    • How many days left before _______?
    • Photo of a beneficiary with an overlaid infographic
  • Photo of a supporter with a quote stating how important your work is.
  • Chart depicting your impact (or need for your services) over time. Note: this could be proof of your success, and/or proof of the need for more funds to do more.
  • Animation of how your work changes lives by building houses.
  • Flowchart of how your organization delivers its services.

An image incorporating text, statistics and a photo of a theoretical beneficiary, with branding. All of these elements are FREE for nonprofits.

Ideally, the image should convey a combination of the following:

  1. Tone you want to set
  2. Story you want to tell
  3. Message you want to convey
  4. Information you want to impart
  5. Effect you want to have

The main key is to stay true to your voice and not distract from the story you’re telling.

Creating the Visuals for Your Content

Once you know how you want to incorporate visuals into a particular piece of content, you don’t have to spend a long time creating it, or hire a graphic designer to create the perfect image. There are a number of great free and paid resources that will help you find the right photo, create a chart, an infographic, or help you find someone to make anything for you quickly and inexpensively.

Photo Sources

  • Your own library of photos taken by staff, volunteers and beneficiaries is always going to tell your story best, so start here! If you haven’t been amassing one, it’s never too late to start. Ask your beneficiaries for some photos interacting with your products and services, on location, or just being happy.
  • Consider hiring a professional photographer for your next event. A trained photographer knows how to tell a story with each shot, and frees your participants to focus on the occasion. With the cost of professional cameras down significantly in the last 10 years, more people have taken up photography and lowered their rates.
  • There are several great free photo sites you can download from. Just be sure to check the license and attribution requirements before you download:
    • Pixabay collects user-contributed, license-free photos from around the world. (See more about Pixabay in our tools section.)
    • Creative Commons has a large collection of “use and remix” images, allowing you to edit them to your heart’s (or your content’s) desire.
    • Library of Congress Pictures offers “more than 14 million” government-owned and public domain images.
    • Flickr users can and frequently do offer their photos under Creative Commons licenses (often free to use with proper attribution).
  • Royalty-free stock photo sites like Shutterstock and Getty Images can be expensive, but look around. Sites like 123rf and DepositPhotos often have the same or similar images for lower rates. (Tip: if you’re going to be using them often, a bulk pack or subscription may save you a lot of money in the long run.)

Quick & Easy Visual Creation Tools

For creating infographics, editing photos or making social-media-specific images, take a look at these tools:

  • WordPress themes and plugins often have infographic-style elements built in (like the ones we used in the “Effects of Visuals” statistics section, above). You can easily incorporate those into your site content, or even grab a screenshot of the page to make your shareable image for other platforms.
  • Canva is a graphic design platform offering a wide assortment of design tools, templates, and documents.
  • Piktochart is an infographic software for creating professional-grade graphic visuals.
  • PowerPoint (or your favorite presentation software) – Because it’s designed for quick visual layout (i.e., storytelling), we’ve used PowerPoint for years to make infographics, inspirational quotes, cover photos, ads, and, of course, slides.
  • (and other freelance sites) — Outsource your graphic needs to experts to save you time and money. On Fiverr, all offerings start at $5, and go up from there. Tip: Copyrights aren’t as well-respected in many parts of the world, and even by some freelancers here in the U.S. We recommend you double-check ahead of time that the final result will be original work and/or use licensed images, free of copyright infringements.

Action Steps: Tapping into the Storytelling Superpower

  • Feature Your Photos

    Go through your website and identify any page that doesn’t currently have at least one (preferably two) compelling visuals. If you have something in your library that works, put it in. If not, try one of the free or paid libraries above.

  • Set Your Statistics

    What numbers do you have that could be turned into charts or infographics? Turn the measurable, seemingly impersonal statistics about your work and impact into engaging parts of your story.

  • Tune Your Tools

    Chances are, you already have tools like Microsoft PowerPoint that can be used to create everything from social media posts to infographics. If you’re not big on PowerPoint, try one of the other tools in the section above, or browse our Nonprofit Tools section to choose what works best for you and your workflow. Don’t have the time and resources? Fiverr may do the trick at a price that even the most cash-poor organizations can afford.

  • Shore Up Your Strategy

    Visuals are a superpower, but they’re not a cure-all for nonprofit storytelling. For a comprehensive strategy, consider taking our course, which walks you through every aspect of thinking about and creating a nonprofit online strategy that works.

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