Adventures in Executive Dashboards
It's easy for your organization to get overwhelmed with data. Executive dashboards can provide an overview of your organizational health at a glance. But how do you actually create one? We provide three examples of nonprofit dashboards.
Nonprofits track all sorts of information, from financial data like fundraising success and year-to-date spending, to data on event participation, volunteers, new supporters, and more. While it is difficult enough just to track the data, it’s much easier to understand and take action on this information if it’s pulled together with easy-to-understand visuals. With the right display, organizational metrics can be pulled out of a data-heavy realm that only an analyst could love to an organization-wide communication method that can be used for internal goal-setting, board meetings, reporting to funders, or executive decision making. Executive dashboards can provide just that perspective.
A good dashboard pulls together a number of different, perhaps disparate, metrics into a visually-appealing, easy to understand interface. Often, these dashboards show indicators to make it easy see progress against a goal – for instance, a “traffic light” icon with a green, yellow, or red light might show whether or not fundraising revenue is proceeding according to plan.
One of the most difficult parts of a dashboard will be to decide what metrics you’d like to track, and where that data will come from. However, there is also the important question as to how logistically you’ll create and display a dashboard. This article talks through three short case studies of how nonprofits create and use their executive dashboards.
Using Excel as a Dashboard to Set Business Goals
The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) is a community of peers who share technology solutions across the sector and support each other’s work. NTEN uses an executive dashboard to help drive business decisions by looking at where the organization is, where they have been, and where they should be.
Currently the NTEN dashboard displays three main types of data: membership goals (for example, members who have renewed, new members joined, total dues), event goals (for example, conference registrations and revenue, webinar fees), and other goals such as newsletter subscriptions and the amount of time visitors spend on the website. Each metric is shown in comparison to where they had planned to be at the current point of time, and the status is shown with a green highlight (showing that they’re on target), yellow highlight (showing that they’re somewhat off target), or a red target (there’s cause for concern). NTEN uses Excel to build this dashboard. Additional tabs in the spreadsheet shown more detail for those that want to delve down.
The data is manually inputted from other systems – like their membership management system, and a website analytics tool – into the data tabs of the Excel document. Excel then takes the raw numbers and runs a series of calculations so that the front page overview and graphs are mostly system-generated and need only a couple of manual tweaks each week. Some of the data is inputted once a week – requiring about 30 minutes – and some is added in every month, requiring about an extra hour a month. Although they find that the need to manually input the data is a considerable drawback of using Excel, it hasn’t taken so much time that it has been a burden.
Although NTEN has had a basic dashboard for some time, they sat down in 2007 to take a good look at what they were using and how they might change the format. They revamped the metrics they were tracking, but continued to use Excel. It took about 4 hours over the course of one week to update to a new template using different information.
Overall, NTEN finds the investment in creating and maintaining the dashboard worthwhile. The dashboard is examined in weekly management meetings, and is used to make program decisions. It allows the organization to see where they stand against annual goals, and also helps inform what future success would look like (for example, how many new members they should expect in 2010 based on how many they got in 2009).
Using a CRM as Dashboard for Internal Project Management
Groundwire (formerly ONE/Northwest) offers cutting-edge online tools and strategies to environmental organizations. They use an executive dashboard for internal project management, to track both their consulting services and initiatives like fundraising. For instance, the dashboard summarizes project billing status, the amount of time that each staff member has put to each project, invoices, timelines and statuses of projects, spending on subcontractors, and more. The dashboard shows information for the entire organizational by default, but users can also drill down to each staff member and/or program area to show their specific projects and status. Groundwire also has dashboards that summarize project evaluation results, fundraising performance, and restricted fund management.
Groundwire has used Salesforce, a constituent relationship management system, to track most of their organizational data since 2006. This made Salesforce the obvious choice to use as their dashboard as well. Salesforce presents the data in an extremely graphically-appealing format, and it’s all updated in real-time dashboard as the information in Salesforce is updated.
Groundwire found the dashboard very easy to implement – although they were helped along by staff, some of whom specialize in implementing Salesforce for nonprofits. They customized some fields and processes in Salesforce to help track specific items that were important to them, but they didn’t have to do any customization for the dashboard itself. Once they knew what information they wanted to pull into the dashboard, it only took about an hour to set up the dashboard initially. It was mostly a drag and click process. Groundwire has found that one of Salesforce’s strong points is the ability to easily compare data to budgets or baselines, which facilitates the dashboard display.
Sample Salesforce dashboard courtesy of Wen-Hua Yang, NAPAWF
It also doesn’t take much additional effort for them to maintain the dashboard. Changes are made on an ad-hoc basis, as the organization decides that additional information should be added to the dashboard, and only take a couple of minutes to update.
Groundwire’s dashboard is critical to their day-to-day project management as well as their ongoing planning and evaluation work.
Developing Their Own Open-Source Dashboard Solution
The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) has built their own open-source dashboard solution on top of Drupal, an open-source content management system. IMA has been using Drupal for several years to maintain their website, among other things, so it was a compelling choice when they started considering options for creating a dashboard. They have found it extremely flexible as they have built additional dashboard functions on top of the out-of-box features.
IMA uses the dashboard for two purposes: internal metrics tracking and as an external snapshot to the public. With both these goals, it was important that people could see both an at-a-glance view and then drill down to the details if they were interested. Since the dashboard is made public, it was also important that it was graphically appealing, and IMA found Drupal extremely flexible in this regard.
Once IMA knew what they wanted to track (everything from attendance, to new works of art and works of art on loan, to electricity consumption, to endowment size, to membership, and more), it took them about six weeks to get it up and running. See the live, public version at http://dashboard.imamuseum.org/. In the two years since they started using the dashboard, IMA has continued to hone what information is most valuable to display. Updates are made on an ad-hoc basis and require few resources.
IMA has also found an interesting solution for maintaining the dashboard. The update process requires entering most data by hand into Drupal. However, IMA has spread out the tasks of updating to over 50 staff members, meaning each staff member only has a couple of minutes worth of updating to do (either on a weekly or monthly basis). For example, the person who receives the electricity bill updates the kilowatt usage. The IT staff spends about an hour to an hour and half worth of maintenance on the site a month. For the metrics that are automatically updated, IMA found it very easy to integrate Drupal with their other systems.
This is certainly a solution for an organization with a higher level of technological sophistication, but IMA has made it easier for others who would like to create a dashboard in Drupal by releasing their own as a free and open-source module.
The dashboard has been extremely helpful in sharing with the senior managers the day-to-day activity. Additionally, it helps demonstrate how well IMA has been in meeting its mission. For example, it is important to the museum that they are reaching people from all surrounding neighborhoods (an indicator of reaching a diverse population). The dashboard automatically tracks for them the number of people who are coming from which zip codes (zip code data is tied in with their ticketing system, which feeds automatically to the dashboard).
Executive dashboards can be an interesting way to make key data points accessible in an easy-to-understand, graphical, format. And they don’t have to be technically complicated to setup. Start by thinking through the metrics that you want to measure and how you want them to visually be displayed, and then see if one of the software applications you already have can help you to display this information. Your current content management system, blog tool, spreadsheet application, online advocacy toolset, donor management database, or other system may already have the functions you need to create an executive dashboard. As these case studies show, you may well already have something that will work.
Kaitlin LaCasse oversees Idealware’s research on social media methods and strategies for nonprofits, as well as Idealware’s own communications and social media tactics. Before coming to Idealware, Kaitlin worked in the Marketing and Public Relations department at Upromise Investments, the leading administrator of 529 college savings plans. While with Upromise Investments, Kaitlin spearheaded a variety of communications campaigns, including the launch of the company’s consumer-facing website, and played an integral role in the company’s marketing and public relations strategy.