Faith, hope and smart charity

Every year Canadians donate millions to various charities – but how much of that is spent on specific campaigns and how much on dinners for executives?

With donors today demanding greater transparency and accountability, charitable organizations in Canada are under greater pressure to effectively track how funds are channeled and used.  

One of them, United Way, turned to technology to meet these growing responsibilities and manage its annual campaigns as efficiently and responsibly as possible. Specifically, the organization uses a new business intelligence (BI) system to help track, report and share donor trends across four of its offices – in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Winnipeg.

The new system helps with measuring campaign results by region or earnings, and reporting to donors on how their offerings affect the community.

Donors want to know where their money is going and the root causes of challenges each city is facing, said Keyth James, vice-president of information services at United Way, Toronto.

Previously, tracking such information and providing it to donors was a challenge.

Users spent too much time sifting through data for canned reports, James said.

He said the resource development department at United Way Toronto would receive dumps of the entire database and then attempt to do analytics in Excel – a cumbersome task that would take days.  And, an error in previous spreadsheets would skew the numbers.  

In search of a better way, United Way started rollout of Microsoft’s business intelligence software in 2006.

The company says it chose the Microsoft product because it fitted within its existing environment.

United Way can now verify data and results on a specific day of a campaign and compare it with the same day of the previous year’s campaign.

The non-profit organization has delivered its first round of standard reports.

It says users can now create their own reports, based on validated data pulled from SQL Server into ProClarity Analytics (the BI system from ProClarity, a company acquired by Microsoft in April 2006) and Microsoft SharePoint portal.

In the past, some of these reports could only be done once in a campaign because it took very long to get those numbers. Now users can access that data instantly with a click of the mouse.

Also in the past, reports would consist of a bunch of numbers on a spreadsheet – but now there are graphs, charts and mapping capabilities.

Users can visually represent, for instance, the relationship between an agency and volunteers in an area who may not know about the agency, or a workplace that wants to contribute but is unaware of activities in their area.

“To visualize that on a spreadsheet is very difficult,” said James, “but to visualize that on a map is incredible.”

He said the entire practice and the enhanced performance it produces will “revolutionize the way United Way interacts with all people, externally as well as internally.”

The return-on-investment really comes down to allowing communities to see the impact of their contributions, the United Way executive said.

It’s also about understanding volunteers’ interests and being able to target messaging to them. And it’s about being able to deep-dive into those numbers, to see how different sectors of the business are performing.

In 2009, the United Way will start to measure that process improvement, as well as evaluate the impact BI has had on the departments already using it.

In a year or two, it could become more external facing, where communities input information into the system that local United Ways could then report on. If you were a donor, for example, you would be able to get information on a specific area you’re interested in, such as homelessness in your city.

“In the non-profit space it’s difficult to be leading edge,” said James. “I believe this will give us an edge.”

Microsoft’s BI system consists of SQL Server, which stores and retrieves the data, and SharePoint Server – which facilitates collaboration and offers access to information essential to organizational goals and processes.

PerformancePoint – the centerpiece of the system – is a performance management tool that helps users across an organization monitor and analyze performance.

For the first time you’re seeing a non-profit outfit really take advantage of an enterprise-grade BI app such as PerformancePoint to track how money is being spent across the organization and provide that information to stakeholders, said Ryan Dochuk, product manager, business intelligence at Microsoft Canada.

“They can share what the real value of their organization is providing.”

In the past, he said, BI was a costly proposition for many organizations – which had to invest in  licensing,  deployment, the cost of training users.

Dochuk said United Way opted for Microsoft’s BI software large because it didn’t require advanced skill-sets.

Users could access information using familiar tools within Microsoft Office, so the non-profit organization wouldn’t have to spend a whack on training or hiring high-priced analysts.

“We have integration through our entire product stack, right through our BI platform,” said Dochuk. “You can access information through the same productivity environment you’re using to do everything else.”

When you’re in Excel, for example, you can access BI through Excel.

Analytics tools are now being used by a much wider audience than before, said Nigel Wallis, research manager of Canadian applications services research at IDC Canada.

 And they are now more accessible to smaller businesses.

He said BI application vendors are doing a much better job of integrating analytical elements such as dashboards into traditional application suites.

Old school enterprise resource planning or supply chain management software didn’t have very useful interfaces, he said, and there was no consideration of how users would want to deal with them. Now, for even really heavy applications, the front-end often comes with some sort of entry-level analytics capability.

“This means it’s easier to use BI – and not just at the entry-point,” Wallis said. He said such a democratization of analytics really helps small and mid-sized business.

Organizations need to understand how their data affects their bottom line, and BI helps drive that out, which means they can make better decisions in a faster timeframe on more accurate information.

That’s why IDC believes that, even with the tremendous macro-economic concerns and constraints around the economy for 2009, BI is still going to be an area of growth.

It’s also an area where IT departments need to consider their roadmap and strategy for helping line-of-business managers deliver real value, said Wallis.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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