Case Study In Their Own Words: Finding New Ways to Present Old Ideas

We’re a fan of case studies at Idealware, as they’re good ways to highlight both the lessons we’re trying to get across and the organizations doing so much good work in the world. For this post, we invited Nicole Lagace from HousingWorks RI to tell us what her organization is doing in her own words.

HousingWorks RI

By Nicole Lagace, Director of Communications

My organization, HousingWorks RI, works to improve long-term affordable housing rental and ownership opportunities in Rhode Island, especially for the state’s workforce. We conduct research and data analysis of long-term affordable housing—particularly how it relates to Rhode Island’s economy– and communicate this research to policymakers. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds with numbers and terms like “rental price percent increase,” “housing cost burden,” and “affordable to 80 percent AMI.” Our brand is analyzing and packaging information to be accessible, well designed, user-friendly and ready to use for action.

Essentially, we work to provide information that makes you the housing expert.

We view all of our products through this lens. If a publication becomes overwhelmed with numbers and percentages (which it inevitably does in the first draft), we figure out a better way to convey the information. Are there real people we can use to illustrate the story? Is there a way to graphically depict the data that is less confusing? Is a traditional publication the right tactic for communicating this information? These are critical questions our staff answers regularly.

The Issue:

Earlier this year, we had planned to produce a four page Issue Brief on rental housing in Rhode Island. Rents in Rhode Island are higher than many residents can afford. Our state has been really hard hit by the recession. Our unemployment rate is double digits and foreclosures are a persistent problem for every community. The state’s foreclosure crisis has hit renters particularly hard, especially in urban communities. Nearly one third of foreclosures in Rhode Island over the last three years have been in multi-family properties, and we estimate that over 6,300 apartments were lost as a result.

The decreased supply of rental homes and increased demand has helped sustain high rental prices. The goal of the Issue Brief was to show the need for more long-term affordable rental housing.

When researching for a publication, we use a number of different data sources. In this case, we went to the U.S. Census Bureau to look at their American Community Survey data. We used their statewide data on renters in Rhode Island and found great demographic information like the age, education level, and median household income. Our local Housing Finance Agency, Rhode Island Housing, provided us with the average price rent for one-, two-, and three- bedroom apartments statewide. Digging deeper, we found the median and entry level wages for Rhode Island’s top three occupation groups from our Department of Labor and Training; and the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University tabulated the housing cost burden for renters in the state—a grim statistic of 27 percent of renters spending more than half their income on rent.

The Dilemma:

We had a lot of compelling data and information, but our copy was drowning in numbers and percentages. The other unforeseen problem? It was 2012, but the latest data we had was from 2010. We had to figure out how to make the data relevant and easy to understand all at the same time.

The Solution:

Enter the infographic. I am a huge fan of Beth Kanter, and started following her on Pinterest as soon as I signed up. I immediately went to her nonprofit infographics board for inspiration, and worked on a mockup of the data within the design context of a triple-decker home, a prominent type of apartment building in our area. When I shared the idea with our executive director, she immediately saw the value in presenting the data in this new format, but had some concerns.

Was it too big a departure from what we normally do? Was it worth losing an entire page of written copy? Could we make it happen within the confines of our tiny publication budget?

Ultimately, we decided to take the risk. The infographic would be designed to fit into the entire third page of the Issue Brief, but also to work standalone. Our amazing designers at Lakuna Design put the finishing touches.

The Result:

For starters, we generated a surprising amount of media attention. Remember, this data was not new, all of the numbers were from 2010 and had been seen by reporters in the past—but the numbers hadn’t been presented together in a format that immediately generated an “A-ha” moment for them.

We had a front page story in the Providence Journal (you can read it at the bottom of this post), the state’s largest daily, that read “Report finds cost of renting soars.” Other headlines included: “Rental costs soar in R.I. during foreclosure crisis,” “Nearly 40% of RIers rent their homes – 1 in 4 pays more than half of income on housing,” and “Report: 25% of RI renters cost-burdened.”

In all we had over 20 media mentions, including a small blurb in USA Today. Our experiment paid off and we continued to build upon our reputation for providing user-friendly, well-designed information.

The Takeaway:

It’s important to note that none of the news stories actually mentioned the infographic. They were all about the data reinforcing the need for more long-term affordable housing in Rhode Island, not HousingWorks RI presenting the data as an infographic.

Similarly, this blog post isn’t so much about another nonprofit using an infographic, but about encouraging you to take risks and experiment with packaging your information differently.

HousingWorks RI is small, and while we have grown a respectable following on Twitter, I’m still learning about how to best use these tools for nonprofit communications. When I sat down with our executive director to brainstorm ideas for this post, she quipped that I should write about how great it is to work for someone who offers the freedom to experiment and take risks with how we communicate our information.

She was joking—but having heard nightmare stories of “leadership” standing in the way of really creative communications strategies, she was also on to something. Creativity needs to be part of the culture for staff to be truly comfortable taking risks and chances. Because really, what is the use of all these free tools and technology if we’re not encouraged to play with it?

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