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Can “Reading” An Evaluation Be Fun? It Should Be.

Guest Post: R. Christine Hershey

In an increasingly visual culture, the old ways of communicating lessons learned are startlingly out of touch with how we want and expect to get information. That’s why  the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation decided to try a new approach to sharing lessons they were learning from the evaluation of two social impact games.  One game, Battlestorm, was a youth-based game to improve hurricane preparation awareness and habits on the Gulf Coast. The other, Macon Money, used an alternative form of local currency to connect residents to each other and to attract and expose people to local businesses in Macon, Georgia.  For both evaluations, the foundation wanted to communicate its findings in ways that were just as appealing, interactive, and forward-thinking as the games themselves.

Hershey Cause Communications led the evaluation team and produced a suite of interactive data visualizations, infographics, PowerPoints and publications to communicate the results.  The idea was to communicate the findings in real-time over the course of the games and again when the final analysis was complete.  For more details, check out what popular philanthropy blogger, Lucy Bernholz, recently called “… the most fun evaluation report you’ve ever seen.” Or in keeping with the idea that visuals can sometimes say more than words, you can experience the website here and via the links mentioned below.

We learned two key lessons from this process of combining evaluation and communications to share valuable information:

1.     Let your data paint the picture.

If you are evaluating a program that involves thousands of people, like Macon Money did, that means you have huge data sets. Using a series of data visualizations to communicate the results of Macon Money allowed us to plug our actual data into a graphical interface that would make our findings visual, understandable and interactive.

We partnered with Stamen Design, a San Francisco-based data visualization firm, to develop compelling and fun ways to visualize the multitude of game activity data points—everything from interactions between players to community events, to Facebook posts, to economic impact.

For the game activity timeline, a simple interface lets users look at specific dates or zoom in to examine the game’s activity in a hyper-local context. Another set of graphics allows users to explore the types of social connections made by playing the game. But it’s important to remember that not all data sets lend themselves to visualizations.

Compared to Macon Money, Battlestorm had a much smaller data set, more qualitative data, and we felt we could best illustrate the key finding – that youth can be “superconductors” of information in their communities – with a simple but powerful infographic.

2.     Make your data usable and shareable—by all of your audiences.

Evaluations can be extremely useful to funders, to other evaluators and to the organizations on the ground that may want to highlight their work to the broader community. The visualizations and infographics designed for each game reflect the games’ designs—which in turn reflected local partners and design contexts. And they were designed to be easily shareable. They can be linked to from any website, shared on any Facebook page or Twitter account, or dropped into any PowerPoint.

For those who wanted to know a high-level view of what Knight learned about funding and evaluating both games, our eight-page summary used simple, creative graphic design to distill our findings into key principles without oversimplifying them.

In sum, the increased presence of online gaming and other interactive digital technologies in our culture reminds us not to underestimate the power of play nor the power of graphic design to move our causes forward. Good design for good causes never goes out of style.


Communications Network member R. Christine Hershey is founder and president of Hershey Cause Communications. 



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