November 18, 2015

Your Plan at a Glance: Visual communications for strategic planning

Infographics are all the rage these days, and not just because they’re pretty.

The popularity of infographics reflects some core truths that nonprofit communicators know well:

  • Your supporters want information that’s easy to understand
  • People are bombarded by messages, and there’s limited time to grab and keep their attention
  • Humans process visuals much easier and faster than text
  • Images and graphics are more memorable than words

Cognitive scientist Alan F. Blackwell has shown that pictures are worth 84.1 words. That may not be 1,000, but it’s pretty significant if you want to communicate effectively to your supporters.

On one hand, creating an infographic can be easier than writing a bunch of text if you know what you want to say, you have compelling statistics or visuals, and you understand your audience and what they need. On the other hand, it can be easier to write pages and pages of text, with smart-sounding words, analysis, statistics, and stories. The truth is, neither will be effective without a compelling message that’s relevant and interesting to your audience.

Nonprofit professionals are focusing more on visual communications to convey results, impact, and need. But I recently learned that infographics can also be incredibly valuable in strategic planning.

After spending months developing a strategic communications plan for my organization, I was quite pleased with my 76-page, wire-bound document. It was filled with benchmarking, analysis, and (I think) smart recommendations. I presented the plan to my bosses over the course of two hours. We talked so much about the analysis that we barely got to the recommendations, which was the whole point.

Their feedback? The benchmarking, analysis, and general recommendations were fine, but there wasn’t enough about what we were actually going to do. And they didn’t have what they needed to be able to explain our strategy to other executives and board members.

With the help of an outside perspective—from Carrie Fox at C.Fox Communications, whose team has done excellent strategic and creative work for us—I realized that the substance was good, but I needed a different way to package it. Working together, we created a single infographic to summarize the key concepts of the 76-page document.

Communications strategic plan


In the end, we were able to communicate our team’s overall purpose, four strategic pillars, and our annual priorities. When my boss said, “Our board chair will really like this,” I realized it was what she had been looking for all along.

Because the analysis and planning had been done, boiling it down to its core wasn’t too complicated. What we ended up with straightforward and simple – so simple that to me, it’s almost common sense. Yet it reflects a bigger plan, and it has substance to back it – and now others can understand where we’re going.

This approach worked so well that we’re now using our one-pager as a guide to develop communications strategies for our internal clients. Working to create a one-page plan doesn’t replace the need for thoughtful, comprehensive strategies and tactics – but this approach is helping us ask the right questions, stay focused, and create practical roadmaps that can be shared with others.

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Mark Miller
Mark R. Miller is the associate vice president for communications at the Children’s Hospital Foundation, which raises money for Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C. With a background in political, government, and nonprofit communications -- including the White House and the Case Foundation -- he is known for his leadership in the use of digital communications to build support and raise money for national and international causes.