Tool report: Telling your organization’s story with the Knight Lab Timeline

This week we’re going to look at one of the coolest FREE storytelling tools out there – TimelineJS, produced by Northwestern University’s Knight Lab. The Knight Lab produces awesome user-friendly storytelling tools for journalists, but these tools are just as effective for nonprofits. And this timeline builder has ALL the bells and whistles:

  • No coding required (but can be further customized if you know JSON)
  • Embeddable on most sites, including those using WordPress
  • Smartphone and tablet-friendly
  • Includes multimedia of all sorts – text, images, videos, sound clips, Google Maps, web links…
  • Customizable style
What's YOUR story? Building code-free timelines for your nonprofit with TimelineJS.

Psst – Are you on Pinterest? You know what to do!


Basically if you can operate Google Sheets, you can make an interactive timeline like this:

If you’re wondering, once I had my dates and media, this timeline took me approximately 20 minutes to make and embed on this page.

Easy. Peasy.


Okay, so TimelineJS is fun. But how can it help your nonprofit?

Actually, there are tons of fun things you can do with a timeline. Just a few thoughts:

  • Tell the history of your nonprofit*
  • Describe key events that led to the problem your organization is trying to solve
  • Illustrate milestones in the history of your cause
  • Profile the effects your program has had on a person or group
  • Share the biography of a person you’re profiling

*This is actually how I learned about TimelineJS. Ecotrust Canada celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2015 and wanted to show off its accomplishments over those two decades. This timeline was the result.

Update 3/25/2017: Check out how Rainforest Alliance uses TimelineJS to explain their history – it’s about halfway down the page.


Creating a timeline

All you need is information to put in the timeline, a Google account, and a place to put the timeline (like your organization’s website). The Knight Lab offers a great walkthrough of the steps you’ll need to follow.

One important caveat: the Google Sheet that holds your timeline’s information must be public. Presumably you’re creating this timeline to share publicly anyway, but if privacy is an issue be sure to set the sheet so it’s only viewable by “Anyone with the link” and only editable by you. Your spreadsheet will still be public, but it’ll at least be hard for people to find.


What can you do with a timeline?

Any ideas for other projects? Have you made a timeline that you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments!



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