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Everyone seems to be talking about data these days. As any nonprofit will know if they’ve started down the road to being data-informed, it’s a long journey of taking baby steps, experimenting with new approaches and changing organizational culture - but it’s also one that can yield great results on both a day-to-day basis and in the longer term.
In this installment of TechSoup Battles, we’re going to focus on the part of your data journey where you realize you need a standardized, simple way to visualize all of the data you’ve been collecting: a dashboard. A dashboard will help your organization and board (and in some cases, specific departments) to stay on top of the metrics that matter to you. A well known example is the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s dashboard (theirs is public, though yours doesn’t have to be):
Data and dashboards are big topics, so we can’t cover everything here. We’re assuming that you already track some data in a database or spreadsheet (or can put your data in a spreadsheet) - though you may not make the time to look at it often. If you’re new to the idea of collecting data, struggling to figure out what data to be tracking, or want to learn about other aspects of building a dashboard (such as effective visual design and what to put in a board dashboard), see our further resources section below.
What we will focus on is the technical side: how do you actually go about creating a dashboard? The good news is that no matter how techy or non-techy you are, there is an option for you.
There are basically 4 main approaches to dashboards:
- Excel (example: NTEN) or PowerPoint (example: Year Up) (or similar tools)
- Built-in dashboards in your database/CRM/grant management/donor management system (example: Groundwire)
- Reporting/dashboard/business intelligence tool
- Custom built dashboards (examples: One Acre Fund and Indianapolis Museum of Art)
If you’re getting started with dashboards, I highly recommend building it manually in a spreadsheet or presentation software. It’s time consuming at first, but it helps you figure out what data, metrics and charts are useful in a tool that you’re already familiar with.
Once you’re ready to take the next step, find out if your database program has good built-in dashboard capabilities. If so, and if the majority of the data you are using is in that database, then this is likely the most cost-effective and integrated route.
If not, then consider a dashboard tool. I only suggest building a custom dashboard if you have the in-house technical resources to not only build the dashboard but also maintain it, and existing tools aren’t meeting your needs.
At TechSoup Canada, we’ve just recently made a concerted effort to create and update a weekly dashboard. So far we’ve been using Google Spreadsheets, but we’re soon going to be ready to move to the next step. Since our CRM, CiviCRM, doesn’t have strong dashboarding capabilities and doesn’t include all of our data (such as newsletter stats and phone data), we decided to research what free and low cost tools could help us out.
I quickly discovered that many dashboard tools are built for enterprises, costing thousands of dollars and an entire IT team to implement. However as I kept looking, I discovered there are some dashboard tools created for small businesses that are a much better fit. For this review we settled on SAP Dashboard Design Personal Edition and Zoho Reports; if you’re interested in more options my shortlist is below.
A robust reporting and dashboarding tool that works well with most file formats. It can also automatically update from Google Spreadsheets, allowing for real-time analytics and dashboarding.
|Present your data in an interactive dashboard based on an Excel spreadsheet, and export to many formats.|
|Might be a good fit if...||
You have good raw data in Google Spreadsheets or Excel and you are looking both a reporting and a dashboarding tool.
You will not need to be tech savvy to set up the application. This is a great tool if you would like to collaborate and share your reports and dashboards.
You already have a spreadsheet that summarizes your key metrics (or you can make one) and want to visualize the data in
an interactive way.
You have someone who is tech savvy to build the dashboard (but no coding is required).
Does your organization use some type of dashboard to track your metrics?
Shortlist of low-cost database tools:
- Tableau Public: I’ve heard good reviews of Tableau, but it’s pricey so I looked instead at their Public version. The main downside is that all of your data must be public, so it’s best for dashboards with data that you want to display publicly.
- Andara: a low cost iPad app that connects to your spreadsheets.
- Jasper Reports: an open source tool to build dashboards and reports; some technical experience may be required
- Geckoboard: a cloud dashboard that integrates with many other cloud tools (e.g. Salesforce, Mailchimp, Google Analytics); plans start at $17/month
- Leftronic: another cloud dashboard that integrates with many cloud tools as well as your social media; plans start at $42/month for 2 dashboards
- Grappster: also a cloud dashboard that integrates with cloud tools and social media; free plans are available; still in beta so fairly buggy as of this writing, but has promise
- Getting Started With Data-Driven Decision Making: a workbook from NTEN that will take you through the process of defining relevant metrics for your organization and creating a process to measure them
- Show Me Your Nonprofit Dashboard!: an overview of some common types of nonprofit dashboards
- Refreshing Your Nonprofit Board Dashboard: suggested metrics for a board dashboard
- A Nonprofit Dashboard and Signal Light for Boards: examples of using red/yellow/green indicators (based on benchmarks you set) to show performance in a board dashboard
- Dashboard Design Principles: visual guidelines to keep your dashboard focused and useful