Power BI is a collection of business intelligence and data visualization tools by Microsoft. With Power BI, you can take data from virtually any source (Excel, or other third party databases) and transform them into interactive dashboards and visually immersive reports. It’s user-friendly, offers intuitive drag-and-drop features, boasts robust functionality, and has self-service capabilities, making it one of the best data viz solutions for nonprofits.
If your nonprofit hasn't had the time to dive into data visualization, Power BI may just be the right solution for you.
Why Power BI?
Each day, you and your coworkers create and send all types of data, from emailing stats, to creating reports in spreadsheets, and even printed handouts summarizing your program’s performance. As the amount of data accumulates, the task of quickly finding what you need, when you need it -- let’s say, for a grant proposal or to report back to a donor -- becomes more difficult. Too much data increases the risk that you're using outdated information, or worse yet, not using the data at all because it takes too much time to consolidate and analyze it.
With Power BI, you can easily keep track of your data by connecting your data sources into one program, and analyze your data more effectively by converting them into meaningful visualizations. You and your colleagues work from the same dashboards and reports, which is available to you at any time and can be accessed from anywhere, whether it’s in the cloud (browser, mobile) or on-premises (local desktop, server).
The Power BI Family
Microsoft offers three free Power BI products:
- Power BI Service is the cloud-based version that is used mainly to create and view reports and dashboards for one user (sharing reports and dashboards online requires a paid Pro account). It supports light report editing and can connect to various data sources, but modeling is limited
- Power BI Desktop is the complete data analysis and report creation tool that you can download and install on your local computer. It includes the Query Editor, which allows you to connect disparate sources of data, and consolidate them (called modeling) into a data model, where you can design reports based on your data model
- Power BI Mobile is the app version of Power BI for Windows, Android and iOS devices. It enables you to securely access and view live Power BI dashboards and reports on the go
And four paid Power BI products:
- Power BI Pro unlocks additional features in Power BI Service and Desktop that are not available in the free version, such as API embedding, sharing reports and dashboards, email subscriptions, ability to create reports with non-Power BI Pro users, and more
- Power BI Premium provides dedicated and enhanced resources for your organization, so users can use the Power BI service with better performance and responsiveness. i.e., you’re licensing capacity for your datasets, dashboards and reports, instead of licensing individual users.
- Power BI Report Server is the on-premises reporting solution that allows developers to build your BI environment on-premises and distribute reports behind your organization’s firewall (included with Power BI Premium so users can move to the cloud whenever they choose)
- Power BI Embedded runs on an Azure cloud platform and allows developers to embed dashboards and reports into your own custom application
Since this post is tailored for beginners or those new to Power BI, we’re going to focus on the free, cloud-based version -- Power BI Service.
Power BI Service terminology and basics
Before we dive into using Power BI Service, I recommend familiarizing yourself with a few key Power BI terms:
- Data source - The raw data that you import into Power BI from a file on your computer/server/content pack, or connect directly to the live data source (e.g., a database in the cloud like Azure SQL Database or a CRM such as Dynamics CRM online)
- Datasets – A dataset is automatically created in Power BI when you import your data or connect to your data source. It’s important to note that a dataset is a connection to your data, so you’re not changing the data itself, just the copy of it in Power BI
- Reports – A report in Power BI is the visual way of showing your data, i.e. charts and graphs like line charts, pie charts, treemaps, etc. A Power BI report can be one or more pages containing one or several visualizations. These visuals all come from a single dataset.
- Dashboards – A dashboard is a single screen that displays one or more different sections of data (called widgets or dashboard tiles). For example, you can pull -- or in Power BI terminology, pin -- your reports to a dashboard, which will then be displayed as a dashboard tile.
- Dashboard tile - A dashboard tile is a snapshot of your data, pinned to the dashboard. A tile can be created from a report, dataset, dashboard, the Q&A box, Excel, SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) reports, and more
With a solid understanding of Power BI terminology and concepts, you’re now ready to start building your first dashboard!
Getting Started with Power BI Service
To access Power BI Service, simply create/login to your Microsoft Account, or Microsoft 365 Nonprofit Account, and launch it from your app list.
1. Get your data
Your first step is to import data to your workspace. If this is your first time using Power BI, this option will be an automatic prompt for you. If you’ve opened or used Power BI before, you’ll need to click on the arrow button located on the lower-left corner of your screen.
On the Get Data screen, select the data import option that matches your raw data source (i.e., Create New Content section is for creating and importing data yourself, while Discover Content section contains data and reports already prepared for you via Power BI Pro or other content packs)
In this example, my data source is an Excel spreadsheet that’s saved in OneDrive (via my Microsoft 365 Nonprofit account), so my import selection would be Create New Content, File > Get > OneDrive for Business
Depending on your data source, you may need to specify what kind of connection you’d like Power BI to create in the next step. Continuing my example, Power BI provides two options for importing Excel Spreadsheets: import the data into Power BI (so you can create reports and dashboards), or connect the Excel workbook (essentially using Excel Online in Power BI). Since I want to create reports and dashboards based on my data, I’ve selected the Import option.
NOTE: Your Excel spreadsheet needs to be formatted as a Table in order to import data into Power BI
Next, Power BI automatically creates a dashboard and a dataset based on your imported/connected data source:
[ TIP ] Before you build reports, you can quickly explore your data using Power BI’s “Ask a question about your data” feature.
When your dataset is ready, you can start building reports!
2. Creating Reports
Navigate to Datasets and locate the dataset you’d like to analyze. Then, click on Create Report (graph icon under Actions) to open the report editor.
Next, you’ll see a blank report canvas, which may look daunting at first with the Filters, Visualization and Field panes on the right-hand side (outlined in red, orange and yellow respectively). But fear not! Just focus on one pane at a time. You can choose to start in the Fields pane if you already know which data fields you’d like to analyze, or you can start in the Visualization pane if you want to explore your data.
Continuing my example, I decided to start in the Visualization pane, created a bar graph, and picked three fields: Donation Month, Gift Amount and Language. Then, I configured it to see how many English and French donors we had by month.
[ TIP ] In your Visualizations pane, you can further adjust and customize your visuals in the Fields, Format or Analytics tabs
Here, I encourage you to explore and make as many reports as you’d like! Once you’re ready, the next and final step is to add/pin your reports to a dashboard.
3. Customizing Your Dashboard
As I mentioned earlier, Power BI automatically creates a dashboard for each of your dataset. The default dashboard comes with one dashboard tile, to which you can add, remove and customize your own tiles accordingly by clicking on the ellipses (“...”) button to expand your More Options menu, and selecting “Add Tile”.
However, if you’d like to add/pin a report you created, you’ll need to navigate to the Reports section in Power BI, then click on the report you’d like to pin to your dashboard to open it.
Once your report is opened, there are two ways you can add/pin it to to your dashboard:
A). Click on the ellipses (“...”) button to expand your More Options menu, then click Pin to Live Page
B). Hover over the visualization you’d like to add/pin to the dashboard, and click on Pin Visual, located on the right-hand corner of your graph (push pin button)
Here, your default option is to add/pin the report to the existing dashboard Power BI automatically created for you, or you can choose to create a new dashboard. In my example, I prefer to keep things simple, so I continued with the selection pin to “Existing Dashboard”
[ TIP ] After pinning your visualization to your dashboard, you’ll be prompted to create a Phone View, which you can modify now or skip and modify later. When modifying Phone View, you can easily switch back to the web version by selecting “Web View”, located in the View menu at the upper-right hand corner
From here, you can pin more reports to your dashboard and customize your tiles further by reorganizing them (drag and drop, resizing, etc.), adding comments and more.
You can also bookmark your dashboards by clicking on the star icon (“Mark as Favourite”), so you can quickly navigate to them from your Power BI homescreen
A note on sharing reports and dashboards in Power BI Service
If you’d like to share your dashboard/report with other users or embed it online, you’ll need to upgrade to a Power BI Pro license. Currently the only way to “share” a report/dashboard on the free Power BI Service is to download it as a PDF (by selecting Export > Print this Page > Save as PDF), and then you can upload the PDF to a shared drive, or email it directly to your colleagues.
You’ve built your first dashboard! Now what?
Now that you’ve created reports and dashboards, you’re all set to analyze and monitor your data! If you’d like to create and nurture a data-informed culture at your organization, make it a habit to use your dashboards to track progress, make decisions and predictions, and stay up-to-date on a regular basis.
Interested in learning more about Power BI and exploring other Power BI products? I highly recommend you to peruse Microsoft’s Power BI documentation, where you have access to step-by-step guides, video tutorials and even learning modules to help you on your data viz journey.
I hope this post has encouraged you to take your first step into the world of data visualization. Good luck and have fun analyzing, data enthusiasts!