Use Graphs to Talk About Financials

To make good financial decisions, nonprofit executives and board members first need access to good data.  Second, they need to be able to come to an informed consensus on what that data is telling them.  But getting from step one to step two can be a challenge if not everybody feels completely comfortable analyzing financial spreadsheets.

Presenting data with graphs alongside your spreadsheets can be a useful tactic for bridging the gap between a page full of numbers and a fruitful strategic discussion.  I often find that presenting data visually provides a more intuitive venue for absorbing information such as trends over time or the way individual parts of the enterprise add up to a whole.

All you need to start is the relevant data and access to spreadsheet software that can make graphs.  I find that MS Excel's graphing functionality is the most flexible, but free options like Google Sheets and OpenOffice can get the job done too - especially for simple presentations like the ones above.  If you're not familiar with how to use the graphing function of your software, there's no shortage of free tutorials online.

Here are a few tips for good use of graphs:

  • Graphs are a great way to show the relationship between two or more sets of data.  Just don't try to cram too much into one picture or you'll create more confusion than clarity.
  • Use design elements to differentiate between different kinds of data that appear in the same graph.  For example, in the revenue graph above the "Total" line is dotted to differentiate it from its constituent parts.  Again, don't go overboard here.
  • Be mindful of scale.  If you Include both very large and very small numbers in the same graph will mean you can only really scan the large ones.  This can be a useful design strategy when done intentionally, but doesn't work if you need to be able to see how the small numbers change over time.
  • If you're designing graphs in color, make sure any hard copies you provide are also printed in color or they're almost guaranteed to be unreadable.

Anybody have particularly imaginative ways of presenting financial data graphically?  Any major pitfalls you've fallen victim to?