Data often gets a bad rap. In times when businesses and nonprofits alike are increasingly seeing the importance of the ‘human’ dimension in what they do, there has been a distinct move away from the quantitative to the qualitative.
People involved with data decisions get tarred with tough names; bean counters, number crunchers, apparatchik. Data is seen as the antithesis of ‘personal’; cold, detached, objective - concerned with rules rather than context, metrics rather than meaning.
The truth is though, data is only what you do with it. And data can play an absolutely key role in driving the human heart of an organisation. Data - collected effectively, leveraged appropriately and presented meaningfully - grants insight into your activities in a way that can help you to engage in purposeful action.
The decisions you make can still be entirely ‘human’ in nature; based on concepts of kindness, humanity, ethics, empowerment, improvement and collaboration. But when they are based on data, they also become strategically driven; delivering good in a more sustainable and effective manner.
Data isn’t just beautiful. Data helps to make our actions for good work all the better.
Data driven dashboards - why are they so important?
The idea that data is what you do with it is fully supported by the concept of ‘data dashboards’. Just as within a car, the information presented to you - speed, RPM, distance covered, petrol levels - don’t dictate anything.
They simply provide the information you need to make choices - choices you will take based on the context of what you’re trying to do. Need to get somewhere fast, and it’s your speed and the clock that you’ll probably be watching. Trying to drive in a more environmentally conscious manner? Now you’ll be balancing RPM with the petrol gauge.
Data dashboards for businesses, nonprofits and NGOs operate in exactly the same manner. They provide a range of metrics that inform (not dictate) the actions that an organisation might take. They provide a more tangible context of operation - something that multiple parties can look at together to gain a picture of the situation (an element that can often become confused when communicating only with subjective information).
Dashboards also provide meaningful feedback. They take the guesswork out of decision making by delivering concrete information that at the very least can indicate correlation between action and outcome.
Best of all, the feedback can be both short and long-term. Data dashboards can be used to gain a snapshot into performance at any given moment, but they also provide metrics for long-term evaluation - providing insight into trends and changes over time.
Finally, they provide accountability. But that point is so important that we’re going to give it it’s own section at the end of this blog.
Where are dashboards used?
When it comes to dashboards, it’s more a question of ‘Where aren’t they used’? Or perhaps more pertinently, 'Where can’t they be used'?
Applications for dashboard metrics are practically limitless. Indeed - this is where they start to differ from the car dashboard analogy. Cars have a fairly standardised mode of operation - so their dashboard metrics tend to be broadly similar.
But there is no one-size-fits-all approach to business: an NGO operating in the field of food poverty is not looking at the same factors as an educational provider, who is not looking at the same metrics as a retailer working in the field of sustainable fashion.
The beauty of a dashboard - done right - is the way that it can be customised to show you what you really need. Meaningful and targeted data, not simply reams of irrelevant statistics. Of course, the extent to which you manage this will depend a) on the versatility, flexibility and adaptability of the dashboard service you use, and b) on your ability - or the ability of your dashboard provider - to dig deep down into the core of your business to understand what your objectives are, and how data can support this.
A good dashboard tells a story to the person viewing it. A canvas of information for understanding what the organisation is doing and how they are performing.
What does a dashboard look like?
Dashboards can of course take many different forms: just like their car-based namesake, the dashboard of a Land Rover looks very different to a Tesla. The main thing is that they need to present data in a way that can be understood at a glance; intuitive, meaningful, clear.
But what data? ...Well, really, that depends.
At Task, we create dashboards that combine Task team engagement data with historical data from other sources.
As an example in the nonprofit sector, we’ve created dashboards for social change charities to report to donors on the impact of volunteering activities, others to monitor the delivery of lessons by volunteer teachers abroad, and one to log Food Bank outreach and deliveries - even assisting with the planning of routes.
We’ve also created dashboards to track how well UN Sustainability Goals are being met within the organisation; employees or volunteers simply log when they’ve completed activity that relates to one of the Global Goals and the dashboard is updated in real time.
These are just a few examples - there are really limitless ways for dashboards to be structured to display social and environmental impact data to relevant audiences.
The key message here is - when you’re asking ‘what are dashboards used for’, the answer is ‘anything you need them for’.
So long as the approach taken towards dashboard creation is strategic, logical and clear, they can be made to monitor and assist performance in almost any area.
Designing your dashboard
This flexibility means that whilst dashboards are frequently used to measure general business and organisational factors over time, they’re particularly useful in tracking the progress of a fixed program that has finite application and definite goals.
Depending on the scope for your dashboard it could include a huge range of charity performance indicators from lists of impact activities over time, geolocation information, funding used, to social return on investment metrics. Then there’s the social impact measures that can be derived from this data - demonstrating the real impact your organisation is having.
You can also adapt your dashboard depending who the audience is. Dashboards for management meetings and other internal promotion maybe very different to those designed for donors or impact investors.
Dashboards can also make teamwork more effective and can improve collaborations. When everyone has access to the same metrics to measure progress, your teamwork and rate of progress can be accelerated.When creating your dashboard, whether for a specific program or for an organisational wide perspective, you need to think both logically and creatively about the overall structure and how the different elements combine to produce outcomes. Only with this understanding can you map out the most suitable dashboard metrics to tell you what you really need to know.
Because ultimately; that’s the key goal of a dashboard. Not to present you with data - but to present you with information - actionable, usable and imbued with meaning.
Let's take a look at a real example
As is often the case, perhaps all of this is best illustrated with an example.
ACT Asia is an amazing organisation which runs education programmes, trains vets, and provides pain-free operations such as neuterings to street animals in China. They have implemented a Task dashboard to track a number of these elements - you can see more here: ACTAsia project dashboard
There’s something really important that ATCAsia’s case study demonstrates. Thus far, we’ve mostly been talking about how the use of metrics, measurement and dashboards can give you strategic insight into your performance.
But, one of the main advantages of using dashboards for your projects - and this is something that ATCAsia have leveraged brilliantly - is the ability to use those dashboards as an external communication device.
This is particularly true in the field of non-profit, NGO and volunteer organisations, where your nonprofit dashboard indicators aren't a closely guarded corporate secret, but a matter of celebration and achievement (though of course, as businesses become more enlightened and move away from strict concepts of the capitalist/corporate model, many for-profit organisations are also recognising the benefits of sharing openly with their stakeholders and clients)
For now, let’s take a closer look at the role of dashboards for NGOs, charities and not-for-profit operations.
Transparency, Accountability and Improved fundraising
There are two main reasons why it’s a really, really good idea to integrate dashboard reporting into your not-for-profit operation - ethics and practical effectiveness.
From an ethics viewpoint, it’s arguably pretty self-evident that operations which raise funds from one population and make a pledge to use them to help another population need to not only do what they say they’re going to do, but be able to prove it too.
There is a clear ethical responsibility to operate in a transparent way and to operate with full accountability. Dashboards help to do this - recording the metrics that demonstrate your performance, and making them accessible and understandable to the general population.
But it isn’t just that there’s an inherent ethical responsibility to doing this. There’s a practical benefit too. There are more than a few psychological reasons why your potential donor population responds effectively when presented with a nonprofit KPI dashboard.
The first of these is trust. Many of the larger charities have in recent years received significant backlash because their distribution of funds has been seen as - well, inefficient at best, and corrupt at worse.
Huge overheads, inefficient bureaucracy, disproportionate boardroom salaries - in general, just a feeling that not enough funds are being channeled to the place where they are needed, and where it is promised they would go.
Dashboards help to demonstrate an openness and a willingness to proactively engage in accountability practices, and they grant donors the ability to get a tangible feel for the way that their contributions are making a difference right down on the ground, where it counts.
Secondly, it provides stimulation and encouragement. People thrive on being able to visualise progress; it’s why the fitness industry makes a killing from selling scales and fitness watches - we can see and feel our physical shape change when we diet and exercise, but it doesn’t stop us from chasing those metrics too.
They provide a swift dopamine kick and sense of satisfaction. Which is funny, because the metric isn’t the thing we’re chasing, it’s merely a representation of the outcome we’re seeking. But when that outcome is kind of nebulous (I dunno… do these jeans feel looser?), then it’s much more exciting to latch onto the concreteness of a changing number.
Of course, the same goes in the realm of not-for-profit operations. Returning to ACT Asia, how could it not be encouraging and stimulating to watch the number of puppies rescued and rehabilitated day-by-day.
When these concrete metrics are combined with more experiential too - something like a video or case study story (something which we think is really important and have therefore incorporated into our own dashboard approach), then donors are incentivised to contribute more because they are actively rewarded with a tangible understanding of the difference they’re making.
Tangibility is key
Indeed, a word that has come up again and again is the concept of making things ‘tangible’. There’s an odd paradox in the whole situation. Numbers and metrics give our brains something to cling and visualise in a way that often isn’t possible with more subjective descriptions. They give a point of relatability.
But within not-for-profit organisations, there is an inherent scepticism and suspicion of numbers. And rightly so, because in many ways, they don’t tell us anything. If we say we changed someone’s life - how could we quantify that? How do you measure that feeling or progressing from despair to hope? Of course you can’t.
And if you did try to measure it, you might find yourself in dodgy waters; measuring utility or economic value often leads to data-driven comparisons which risk overlooking or accounting for the fundamental nature of the thing. They risk rendering actions of the heart a matter of accounting in the head. Utility over understanding.
That’s why at Task we’ve aimed to create dashboards which create this feeling of ‘tangibility’ for stakeholders, without descending into the mentality of a bean counter. We aim to help make sure our users never lose sight of the key message; purpose over particulars, meaning over minutiae.
An effectively designed dashboard should be able to use numbers to inform decision making in relation to specifics, but far more than this, it should also use it to paint a picture - to communicate the value and benefit of your activities in a meaningful way.
Task is a great way to connect teams with your social missions and by doing so, you can access to mission critical data that will help you run the organisation.
If you'd like a dashboard to help tell your data driven story, book a free consultation by clicking the button below.