Ever since John D. Rockefeller pioneered the concept of “scientific philanthropy,” his namesake foundation has supported innovations that have changed lives all over the world. The Rockefeller Foundation was one of the first organizations to see the potential of Albert Einstein, for instance, and helped spark the Green Revolution in agriculture, which saved more than one billion lives.
Rockefeller’s innovation program team wanted to encourage innovation and help other organizations cultivate an “innovation mindset”—a way of thinking and working that creates space for innovative ideas to develop. But “innovation” has different meanings for different people. Attempts to define it were quickly mired in abstraction. The Foundation needed a way to get past the buzzword and show innovation in action.
If people don’t know what innovation looks like, how are they supposed to recognize and replicate it?
The best way to get beyond an abstract word or concept is to visualize it. People can more easily understand an idea—and are more motivated to achieve a goal—if they can see it in their mind’s eye. About 90 percent of information processing in the brain is visual, and people process visuals 60,000 times faster than text.
Visualizing abstract concepts like “innovation” begins with putting people in the picture. The Rockefeller and Hattaway teams created a series of visual stories that showed innovation at work in different contexts, such as expanding access to electricity in rural India and lowering unemployment among young people in the United States. Each story showed how people in the field used an innovative approach to achieve meaningful results.
Visual storytelling makes an abstract concept concrete and easy to understand.
The visual stories also conveyed specific ideas that the Rockefeller team used to encourage innovation mindsets: the importance of looking everywhere for good ideas; taking smart risks and doing things differently; bringing people and ideas together; and thinking in systems to solve different problems at once.
Our team also worked with Rockefeller to develop Storytelling For Good, a digital platform and training program that provides toolkits, case studies and strategic guidance to help nonprofits tell stories with purpose. Organizations around the world are using the platform's narrative and networking tools to expand their reach, resources and impact.