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When Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words? High Impact Use of Charts in Grant Seeking

Monday, May 11, 2020   (2 Comments)
Posted by: Aly Sanchez
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Charts can be a powerful addition to grant proposals. Or they can be a confusing waste of space. In this article we will chart use, types, and formatting tips.


Use of Charts in Grants

We use charts, graphs, and plots to display quantitative data — stuff you can count or measure. Visuals 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? Charts are a good option when they:

  • Display information more concisely than a narrative;
  • Show information in a more impactful way;
  • Help the reader understand complex information;
  • Reveal relationships between variables; or,
  • Provide visual relief from text blocks within a long proposal.


Types of Charts

Charts commonly used for general grant proposals are pie, bar/column, and line/area. Choosing a type should be based on the type of information displayed, such as poverty rates; your data use, such as looking at change over time in poverty rates; and the format that makes the information easiest to understand, such as a line graph. (Andrew Abela, of Extreme Presentation, put together a delightful and insightful flowchart about chart selection.

  • Pie Chart: These show parts of a whole, like proportions of your budget allocated to categories. They only show one variable and take up a lot of space to do that—especially since pie charts often need legends.

  • Bar and Column Charts: These can display single variables, groups of variables, parts of a whole, and changes over time. They can get cluttered and appear heavy when something like a line chart would do. Sub-types, include vertical and horizontal bar charts, grouped bar charts, stacked bar charts, 100% stacked bar charts, and histograms.


  •  Line and Area Charts: These show time-series data or mathematical trends and work well displaying larger sets of data points in a single series; however, they can get hard to read when showing many or overlapping lines/data series.


Creating Great Charts

Like the rest of your writing, charts should be clear, concise, and cogent—and adhere to the proposal format restrictions. They should be able to stand on their own and still be easily understood. Here are a few specific tips for chart use in grants:


  • Lead into the chart with a written explanation of the key takeaway and use a descriptive but concise title.
  • Eliminate visual clutter like 3-D effects, shadows, legends, unneeded lines, etc. As Edward Tufte explained, you want to maximize the proportion of ink that presents actual data information. This clever animation from Darkhorse Analytics shows an editing process increasing that data-to-ink ratio. (Use more labeling for research and technical proposals.)
  • Order data to support understanding, such as placing pie chart values from largest to smallest or sequencing values for a bar chart of state-level data in alphabetical order.
  • Ensure color charts have the contrast needed for readability in grayscale in case viewed via black-and-white printing or by someone with color vision issues.
  • Provide chart indexing (e.g., Chart 1, Chart 2) in longer proposals and when to refer to the chart in the text.
  • Include key information like data years and source.
  • Avoid formatting that obscures or misleads – for example, don’t start a y-axis above zero to exaggerate the differences between values in a column chart.


Charts can enhance proposals by adding credibility to your message, capturing lots of information at a glance, and offering reviewers a break from reading text. Always keep your data message in mind when you are selecting what to display and how. Then, treat it like your narrative text development – draft, refine, review, revise.



About the Author:

 Aly Sanchez has 23 years of grant experience including planning, request preparation, and reporting assistance for complex private, state, and federal awards (e.g., CDC, CMS, DOL, USDA, DOJ). She is Director of Strategy and Organizational Development for The Grant Plant, Inc. (TGP). Based in Albuquerque, NM, TGP provides superior and affordable resource development services for organizations to enhance the quality of life in communities served. TGP has written proposals funding more than $150M since 2003, with an ROI of 6,500%. 


GPC Competency:

04. Effective Grant Applications; 09. Writing Convincing Cases for Funding


Diane Calabria says...
Posted Wednesday, May 13, 2020
Great article! Clearly you know your stuff when it comes to making a point efficiently and persuasively with charts. Thank you!
Jen Graves says...
Posted Tuesday, May 12, 2020
Aly, love your funny examples, and that great Darkhorse link. Thanks for your time on this -