Visual Storytelling for the Modern Nonprofit | npENGAGE

Visual Storytelling for the Modern Nonprofit

By on Nov 29, 2018


For as long as nonprofits have been around it has always been vital for these organizations to convey the messages of their causes and missions, to tell their stories. Modern technology provides us all with new opportunities for storytelling, including new ways to approach the ever-important visual element.

That is the topic of the most recent episode of The sgENGAGE Podcast: Visual Storytelling: A Picture is Worth 60,000 Words. Recorded live at bbcon 2018, this episode features an interview with Ira Horowitz, founder of the digital services company Cornershop Creative, who speaks with Blackbaud’s Steve MacLaughlin on the art of visual storytelling, it’s importance to the social good community, and how organizations can incorporate it into their messaging to better engage donors.

Read below for condensed excerpts from the interview including Ira’s emphasis on the value of visual storytelling:


Steve: I know we hear a lot about the importance of storytelling and why nonprofit organizations really need to fine tune how they do storytelling. You’re bringing an element to this, which is about the visual storytelling aspect. Explain that. How can we understand? Wrap our heads around the idea of visual storytelling.

Ira: So everybody knows that old adage that a picture’s worth a thousand words. That’s actually wrong, though. A picture is worth about 60,000 words, because studies have shown that the human brain processes images about 60,000 times faster than it does plain text. So if you’re trying to communicate your message or trying to communicate your story, your mission, what your organization does, you’re going to have a lot more effective time communicating that through images as opposed to just describing that through plain text.

Steve: So are you suggesting that we shouldn’t spend lots of time hand crafting our paragraphs of well-intentioned copy and just replace it with photos of cats and dogs or you know, what are you suggesting?

Ira: Those cats and dogs do a lot. That’s a great tactic and if you have those beautiful images, it certainly can be helpful. The best method is actually to do both. The studies that I’ve seen have said that text accompanied with images actually do a lot better. I think it’s…people process that information three or four times faster if they’re looking at both images and text. So if you’re like that Ikea instruction that just has the visuals, those aren’t as good. Or if you’re just describing in text, it’s also not as good. You need both to really process it effectively.

Steve: And give us some examples. Organizations who are trying to get better at that combination of visual storytelling. How do they start to put in place those basic building blocks or really build a strategy around better visual storytelling?

Ira: Yeah. So there are a lot of great tips and tools that you can do. The first thing that I always say is any good story starts with a good character. You need a strong character-

Steve: Or a villain.

Ira: That’s the other part of it. So you’re working ahead. But yeah, you need both a character and a villain. You need some sort of conflict and that villain doesn’t have to be a person or an evil person. It can be some concept or issue or something that you’re confronting. So food banks, the villain there is obviously hunger as you don’t want people to be hungry. You want to make sure they know where they’re getting their next meal from. And so you can do it. There’s lots of great visuals.

We worked with a great organization, Access Now, and they were doing a campaign about video surveillance and what’s going on and they actually used some imagery of Batman and Joker as a great way to kind of communicate and show that hero/villain, that there’s something going on. And so that’s usually where I recommend starting, is making sure you have those great building blocks of a good story, and finding the right imagery that can convey who the hero is as well as who the villain is.

Steve: Often I’ve heard sometimes organizations in their communication tend to make the organization the hero or they make the cause the hero when, especially when we’re talking about engaging with donors and supporters, it’s making the donor the hero of the story. Can you talk about ways in which you see organizations be successful making that transition to who is the hero in the story to making it more donor-centric?

Ira: There’s a lot of great ways to do this. You know, certainly on social media is where you see this the most –  where people will post quick vignettes of ways that individuals who are members of their community have actually engaged with that organization to tell a story. One of my favorite organizations, Canine Companions for Independence, I know they do a great job of just sharing those stories of how their assistance dogs do a fantastic job of really changing and transforming the lives of the people who they’re meant to help. And so using lots of imagery showing how those, in this instance, how those dogs are helping the people do various tasks of even like answering the phone, getting the mail, things like that that are great. And just showing a visual of that is way more powerful than, than even describing some of the text that’s going on.

To hear more examples and thoughts from Ira on visual storytelling, as well as to learn how even organizations with limited resources can successfully engage in visual storytelling, listen to the full episode here: Episode 76: Visual Storytelling: A Picture is Worth 60,000 Words.


Joe has been with Blackbaud for over three years and supports the brand team as an Associate Marketing Communication Specialist. He is involved with managing content for the npENGAGE website and the sgENGAGE podcast and is thrilled to be in a position to share leading industry trends and ideas within the philanthropic sector. With a passion for animal welfare and the arts, he is a self-proclaimed patron of live music based in New York City who prior to Blackbaud spent more time working with dogs than humans.

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