Even seasoned Palestine watchers might be surprised to learn that Ramallah receives slightly more annual rainfall than gray London. But Israeli authority over groundwater access and distribution across the West Bank has resulted in an incongruous statistic: the average Palestinian in the occupied territory can access only 70 liters per day, 30 short of the World Health Organization’s recommendation and less than half used by the typical Londoner. Israelis enjoy 300 liters per person per day.
It is one of the many ugly realities of the Israeli occupation that Visualizing Palestine (VP), a non-profit body, has highlighted through its arresting and meticulously researched infographics.
The organization is now gearing up to make “design for social justice” — as it describes its raison d’être — into a sustainable enterprise. Given the substantial attention that its graphics have attracted over the past two years, VP's ambitious plans may serve not only to sustain the organization, but also provide an example for other design outfits to follow.
Talent, money and visions
Founded in Ramallah in 2011, VP now calls Beirut home. It has published 16 infographics, which have been disseminated globally in nine languages through prominent media outlets such as the Huffington Post and Al Jazeera English.
According to co-founder Joumana al-Jabri, since 2012 the organization has received at least $115,000 in funding to date from its founders, private donors, the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, and other organizations.
But making the group financially sustainable in the long run is another task entirely. So this summer, it embarked on transforming itself from a civil society project into a larger venture called Visualizing Impact (VI). The new outfit, of which VP will be a part, plans to leverage its media and technology capabilities to present facts about social and political struggles worldwide — not just those in Palestine. It will exist as two legal entities, both sharing the same name: a non-profit corporation, which will carry out the advocacy work; and a for-profit business, which will capitalize on the team’s capabilities to draw revenue for the advocacy arm.
Jabri describes the transformation as “phase two” of the VP project, having completing two years of successful non-profit work. VI, Jabri says, will pull revenue streams from commissions for its work, licensing its name and its technology platforms, and collaborating with artists and industrial designers to sell physical representations of its graphics.
The West Bank water allocation infographic, described above, was the first one that Visualising designed on a commission. The Emergency Water and Sanitation-Hygiene Group (EWASH), a coordination agency dedicated to improving sanitation conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and whose members include OXFAM and various UN agencies, paid $2,200 of the graphic’s $4,800 development cost and took responsibility for its release.
EWASH debuted the poster to great media attention on World Water Day 2013 and printed 8,000 copies for free distribution. They purposefully delivered one to Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the OPT, says Jabri. “That’s a key reflection of how our work can be used — that an organization that has an area focus can use it as a communication tool with…agents of change,” she says.
That VI was only able to charge less than half of the graphic’s development cost, though, reflects the meagerness of this revenue stream. “There’s an education process. Maybe next time, EWASH will cover the full cost, but it took time to show them that we are a research, storyteller, design, and communication team. So until potential clients actually see that, they are not going to pay more,” Jabri says. VI has signed contracts for four commissioned graphics to date.
But even if VI succeeds in securing commissions for the full costs of its graphics, Jabri still sees the need for additional revenue. “The commission model would cover our expenses, but they would make us run [on a just-in-time production model]. What we want are bigger amounts to allow us to innovate, work on technologies and test working with artists,” she says.
There are potential margins to be found in the corporate world, Jabri recognizes. “There are [two] companies that have approached us — not related to Palestine at all — that have expressed interest to use our process.… [For example,] for us to work with their internal team and use visualizations as a tool to filter some of the innovations they come up with.”
Jabri did not detail the ethical principles that would govern VI’s business dealings, but such deals would be carried out by the for-profit arm of VI. This would shield the outfit from accusations of mission drift and unfair competitive advantage. Jabri says the profits from the business side of VI will be directed to the non-profit side.
Multiplying revenue streams
VI’s new name underscores not just an expanding geographical scope, but also a broader range of topics and collaborators. In addition to offering services to the business world, the organization is exploring the establishment of new, socially relevant ‘Visualizing’ organizations — Visualizing Women or Visualizing Bangladesh, for instance.
“Whether [people outside of VI] form their own [Visualizing] teams or whether they recruit us to build from within our team is something we’re still [discussing],” Jabri says.
But content and brand recognition are not the group’s only ambitions. VI has also built up technology platforms that its business side hopes to license to other media and design studios, securing another source of income. VI’s translation platform, which the outfit has already used to circulate its own graphics, allows designers to crowd-source translations of their works without losing control of the layout.
The business is also planning to roll out a design-specific crowd-funding platform that will connect clients (such as political activists) to designers and financiers. It aims to license this platform to groups such as the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture.
“Phase two” of the VP/VI project, then, will be a major transformation for the team of 13, led by Jabri and fellow co-founder Ramzi Jaber. As a first step toward sustainability, Jabri says, 70 percent of the new work that VI will begin in the coming months will have to secure a project-specific source of funding beforehand. The remaining 30 percent will come from various non-commission sources of revenue. Jabri notes that while VP/VI is moving away from accepting donations, its non-profit arm might still apply for and accept grants.
The social entrepreneurs have given themselves a fair amount of time to migrate to their new identity. Jabri tells Executive that the transition to the VI business model is scheduled to be practically complete by April 2014, with the goal of realizing operational sustainability by autumn of that year. In the meantime, though, VI is preparing to launch a crowd-funding campaign, via internationally leading funding platform Kickstarter, to raise $60,000 to help finance immediate expenses for its VP component during this transition period.
Beirut will remain the base for production, although VI is in the process of registering in California as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. The registration “means we can open up to a wider support network,” Jabri says, and notes that even potential Gulf sponsors have expressed preference to do business with an American, rather than a Lebanese or Palestinian, registered organization.
Jabri furthermore anticipates that the proliferation of 'Visualizing' topics will attract American attention to VI’s graphics. “[It will help us] reach an audience that’s important to us,” she says.
In the coming six months alone, VI plans to publish ten infographics, including a reflection on Nelson Mandela’s record. “[It will] speak about an aspect of history that is not spoken about much: Mandela as seen as [both] a peacemaker and as a terrorist, [highlighting] the duality throughout his life,” Jabri says. Carrying an implicit parallel to legacies of Palestinian leaders, this graphic will tacitly tie together VP’s original subject, Occupied Palestine, to its future direction, social justice worldwide.
This article has been updated to clarify VI's and VP's legal structures and funding, and to correct a miscount in the number of languages in which VP has published infographics. VP's visualizations have appeared in nine, not eight, languages: Arabic, English, French, Spanish, Chinese, German, Korean, Polish and Finnish.