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Executive Dashboards: The System That's Right for You

Three examples of how nonprofits used executive dashboards to maximize data and help refine goals

Executive Dashboards: The System That's Right for You 
Kaitlin LaCasse - January 25, 2010
Nonprofits track all sorts of information, from financial numbers to charity event participation, volunteer management, new supporters, and more. With the right display, organizational metrics can be pulled out of a data-heavy realm that only an analyst could love. This data can then be used for internal goal-setting, board meetings, reporting to donors, or executive decision making.

This article is courtesy of Idealware, which provides candid information to help nonprofits choose effective software. For more articles and reviews, go to www.idealware.org.

Nonprofits track all sorts of information, from financial data like fundraising success and year-to-date spending, to data on charity event participation, volunteer management, new supporters, and more. While the data can be difficult to track, it's much easier to understand and take action when it's pulled together and displayed visually.

With the right display, organizational metrics can be pulled out of a data-heavy realm that only an analyst could love. This data can then be used for internal goal-setting, board meetings, reporting to donors, or executive decision making. Executive dashboards can provide just that perspective.

A good dashboard pulls together different metrics into a visually-appealing, easy to understand interface. Often, these dashboards show indicators to make it easy see progress against a goal.

The three most important questions to consider when designing a dashboard are:

  • Which metrics to track
  • Where that data will come from
  • How logistically will you create and display the dashboard

This article talks through three short case studies of how nonprofits create and use their executive dashboards.

Using Microsoft Excel 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.

Data Types

Currently the NTEN dashboard displays three main types of data:

  • Membership goals: members who have renewed, new members joined, total dues
  • Event goals: conference registrations and revenue, webinar fees
  • Other goals: newsletter subscriptions, 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 colored highlight:

Green
on-target

Yellow
somewhat
off-target

Red
cause for concern

Dashboard with Excel

NTEN uses Excel to build this dashboard. Additional tabs in the spreadsheet show 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. As a result, the front page overview and graphs are mostly system-generated and need only a couple of manual tweaks each week.

Updates

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 manually inputting the data is a considerable drawback of using Excel, it hasn't taken so much time that it has been a burden.

Benefits

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).

Internal Project Management with Salesforce

Groundwire (formerly ONE/Northwest) offers cutting-edge online tools and strategies to environmental organizations. They also use an executive dashboard for internal project management to track both their consulting services and initiatives. Groundwire's dashboard is critical to their day-to-day project management as well as their ongoing planning and evaluation work.

Dashboard with Salesforce

Since 2006, Groundwire has used Salesforce, a constituent relationship management system, to track most of their organizational data. This made Salesforce the obvious choice to use as their dashboard. As Salesforce data is updated, it's all updated in a real-time graphical dashboard.

Setup

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. It was mostly a click-and-drag process.

Functionality

The dashboard summarizes project billing status, time spent by staff members on each project, invoices, timelines and statuses of projects, spending on subcontractors, and more. It also displays information for the entire organization and specific projects and statuses by user. Groundwire also has dashboards that summarize project evaluation results, fundraising performance, and restricted fund management.

One of Salesforce's biggest benefits for Groundwire is the ability to easily compare data to budgets or baselines (see graphs in screenshot below).

Sample Salesforce dashboard

Sample Salesforce dashboard courtesy of Wen-Hua Yang, NAPAWF

Updates

It also takes minimal effort to maintain the dashboard. Updates take only minutes to make and are on an ad-hoc basis as the organization decides what should be added to the dashboard.

DIY Dashboard: The Indianapolis Museum of Art and Drupal

The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) built their open-source dashboard solution on top of Drupal, an open-source content management system.

Dashboard with Drupal

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've found it extremely flexible and have built additional dashboard functions on top of the out-of-box features.

Purpose

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 drill down to the details. Since the dashboard is made public, it was also important that it was graphically appealing, and IMA found Drupal extremely flexible in this regard.

Development

IMA first decided on what they wanted to track: attendance, new works of art, works of art on loan, electricity consumption, endowment size, membership, and more. It then took them about six weeks to get the dashboard up and running. You can see the live, public version at http://dashboard.imamuseum.org/. In the two years since they started using the dashboard, IMA has continued to develop how to display the most valuable information. Updates are made on an ad-hoc basis and require few resources.

Updates

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 process to over 50 staff members. Each staff member only has to spend a couple of minutes updating the data on either a weekly or monthly basis. For example, the person who receives the electricity bill updates the kilowatt usage. The IT staff spends about 60 to 90 minutes' 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.

Mission

The dashboard has also been extremely helpful in sharing with the senior managers the day-to-day activity. It also helps demonstrate how successful IMA has been in meeting its mission. For example, the museum's ticketing system automatically feeds zip code data to the dashboard in order to track how successful IMA is at reaching diverse populations.

Free Module

IMA's dashboard is certainly a solution for an organization with a higher level of technological sophistication. To help make it easier for others who would like to create a dashboard in Drupal, IMA has released their own as a free and open-source module.

Summary

Executive dashboards can be a useful 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. Next, 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 already have something that will work.

Many thanks to Jon Stahl of Groundwire, Karl Hedstrom of NTEN, and Robert Stein of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) for their help with this article.