Dashboards: why every organization should have one (or more!)
As 2016 draws to close and we look back over the year's work, are you satisfied that you kept your focus on just the right things? In this article Andy Kaplan, CFO with DonorsChoose.org, argues that dashboards can be an effective and efficient means of keeping on track.
by Andy Kaplan
You use dashboards every day. The simplest is a clock, which tells you when to wake up and how long before you need to leave the house. If you drive to work, your car’s dashboard provides key information you wouldn’t want to be without.
Nonprofits can use dashboards, too. Dashboards offer team members or the entire staff one place to focus on things they need to know on a daily basis, or even in real time. And it can help employees improve their performance.
Where I work, at DonorsChoose.org, where we help teachers raise money for classroom projects, our daily dashboard shows, among other things, how many people made contributions yesterday and the total value of the gifts.
But it doesn’t stop there. Dashboards have become one of our key tools. They support a culture of transparency and help identify problems quickly. It’s much easier to take corrective action when you can see exactly where a challenge lies. And, if it’s set up correctly, a dashboard lets you drill down beyond the summary numbers to more specific information.
People throughout an organization want to feel connected to the bigger picture, and dashboards can show how each person’s effort affects outcomes. For example, at DonorsChoose.org we track the activity of each member of our customer-service department, and we know the average time it takes to resolve a donor’s question or problem as well as the percentage of inquiries answered within 24 hours.
How to Begin
The key to getting started is to decide the three to five most important things you want to know about each day and build a dashboard to report them.
At DonorsChoose.org, we began with the following data about donations made in response to teachers’ requests:
How we did yesterday,
How we are doing year-to-date
How year-to-date performance compares to last year.
How we are doing against our annual fundraising goal.
To get to the point where we could report a handful of items, we had to tinker with our systems to ensure the data was reportable, that we had the historical data to compare it to, and that we had a goal to work toward. At first, this information was in different places. Some of it was system-generated, and some was on paper. It’s now all in the database.
In the early days, the dashboard answered the four questions above as they related to the number of donors, the money donated, and the number of projects posted. All told, we tracked about 10 items, and each day, our financial analyst would print it out and pin it above the watercooler.
It was originally in black in white, but we soon added green and red to signal performance that was either much better or much worse than expected. All of a sudden, everyone in the office could see how we were doing. Watercooler chatter expanded from the latest gossip to include sighs or shrieks, depending on what the dashboard reported each day.
The Bigger Picture
Today visitors to our office see a real-time dashboard on a wall-mounted flat screen. The DonorsChoose.org Daily Dashboard is delivered by email to every employee at 6 a.m., and I’m lobbying for the tech team to build a mobile dashboard app that reports results in real time.
Our dashboard has evolved into a tool we use to share our story with a wide range of audiences. For example, different versions appear at the monthly all-hands meeting, in the monthly report to trustees, and at board meetings. Each version uses a subset of the information reported in the Daily Dashboard and is tailored to the user.
During the past 10 years, our dashboard has expanded to about 40 items. We all zero in on our favorite few each day.
To bring this tool to your nonprofit, sketch out the three to five most important things you want on your dashboard. Run it by a few colleagues for feedback and adjustments, then start publishing it.
You may be surprised at the conversation it triggers and the results it helps produce.