When is a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words?

High Impact Use of Charts in Grant Seeking

Charts can be a powerful addition to grant narratives and other proposal elements. Conversely, they can be a confusing or misleading waste of space. Here’s some considerations for using charts, types of charts and the data they represent, and tips for chart formatting.

We use charts to display quantitative data — “stuff you can count or measure” like 5 pies or 300 grams banana cream filling. Charts can help prove or disprove a point or convey important information. This can also be accomplished via table or text—so when do charts make sense? In general, we use charts when they:

  • Display information more concisely than a narrative
  • Show information in a more impactful way (or hammer home a key point)
  • Sum up information with too many variables, data points, or dependencies to be encapsulated in text
  • Reveal relationships between variables
  • Provide visual relief from text blocks for a long proposal

Looking in Excel, there is a dizzying selection of chart types. While variations abound, nearly all break down into several core classes: pie, bar, line/area, and scatterplot. Choosing which chart type to use is not based on aesthetics, but rather on the type of information displayed.

Pie Chart

Use pie charts to show parts of a whole, like proportions of your budget allocated to various categories or age group breakdowns for your clients. While pie charts can be useful, they have several drawbacks. They only show a limited amount of information (one variable); they use up a good bit of real estate; they make comparisons between roughly proportional subcomponents difficult; and they make comparisons between two data series difficult (see figure 3 for an alternative to side-by-side pie charts). Still, they have a place. Here’s our favorite pie chart:

Chart 1: Pie chart (Source:  Jamie Schimley, GraphJam, 2008)

Bar Chart

Bar charts are flexible and can display a number of points including: comparisons of separate items by a common variable; changes for a single variable over time; and proportions of a whole. The bars represent numbers scaled by size (and can include negative values). Bar charts often handle two and often three variables adeptly. While bar charts fit many needs, they have limitations. For instance, you don’t really want to squash 10+ bars in a chart and they can appear heavy when something like a line chart would do. Sub-types, shown below, include vertical and horizontal standard bar charts (Excel refers to vertical bar charts as column charts), stacked bar charts, and histograms.

Chart 2: Column Chart (Source: Information Resources Inc., Bakery Production & Marketing Redbook 2003, p.26)
Chart 3: Two-Item, 100% Stacked Bar Chart (Sources: Michael Ruhlman, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, 2009 and Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything, 2008)
Chart 4: Distribution Histogram (data is fictional though U.S. average annual consumption is 46 slices, per Agriculture Council of America, 2012)

Line and Area Charts

These charts typically show time-series data (e.g. stock prices by month). They work much better than bar charts for displaying larger sets of data points.

Chart 5: Line Chart (data Harvard Business School. Mergers, Acquisitions, Restructurings, and Corporate Governance. Eskimo Pie Corporation. 1992)


These charts capture data points expressed by two variables, such as hours that students studied and their test scores. Each variable is shown along either the vertical or horizontal axis of the chart. The two variables may be the same (e.g. plotting geographic coordinates, like the chart below, which simply mirrors spilled berries). Variables are more commonly two different types (e.g. elevation of various communities along the horizontal axis and their annual snowfall on the vertical axis). Once the data points are graphed, Excel can add a line or curve to show the mathematical trend (like the orange line in Chart 6).

Chart 6: Scatterplot with Trendline

Charts can be a powerful component of proposal writing. They lend credence to your message, capture a tremendous amount of information “at a glance,” and offer reviewers a welcome break from reading text.

P.S. Like the rest of your writing, charts should be clear, concise, and cogent. They should be able to stand on their own and be easily understood. Always keep your data message in mind when you are selecting what to display, what format to use, and how to design and format within that chart type.

Most nonprofits struggle with getting grants and they’re tired of chasing money. It shouldn’t be this hard. So we created a process that helps them find funding, get grants, and connect to a network. This gives their organizations the money they need to make our communities strong.