Article: A new kind of intelligence

Business intelligence, data management and visualization help paint a bigger picture

Think of it as a giant treasure horde that grows larger every day and rarely gets plundered. We’re talking about your organization’s data and, okay, maybe we’re over-romanticizing it a bit. But there’s an extremely high chance you’re sitting on information that could transform your ability to fundraise, show value to your donors, determine which parts of your community most need your services, and answer almost any question about your organization.

“People are amazed when we show how a dashboard can help them visualize and interact with their data,” says Paula Jennings, Technology Helps’ Business Intelligence and Analytics Lead. “Quite often, it’s the first time they truly realize what stories they can tell or understand something about the way they work that will help them make better business decisions.”

Once you’ve got your data organized, you’re ready to set up a dashboard that puts usable info right at your fingertips. Telling your story through materials such as donor reports and infographics (see below) becomes easy. 

Infographics like this one from the Government of Canada ( downloadable as a PDF at imaginecanada.ca/en/360/sector-stats ) show what can be done with analytics when your data management is complete. Not quite the same as a visualization (the dashboard-generated charts and graphs etc. that are often used as components of an infographic), infographics are a powerful way to tell your story. 

The future of non-profits is already here

Increasingly, business intelligence, analytics, and data visualization are separating the most successful non-profit organizations from the rest. If these concepts snuck up on you, you can hardly be blamed. The world is changing and it’s changing quickly.

In 2016 alone, the world created more data than in the previous 5,000 years of human existence. To picture that—using an example soon to be outdated given the dizzying rate at which technology evolves—imagine about 10 million Blu-ray discs of info generated every day.

One reason why this is happening is that information Is no longer solely gathered by humans who, unlike machines, enjoy sleeping once in a while. Today, we live in an age of sensors, software and a staggering number of machines that generate and capture information around the clock. It’s been estimated that in 2020, 50 billion smart devices were interconnected, collecting, analyzing, and sharing data. And here’s an almost equally staggering number: less than half of one per cent will ever be analyzed. Business-changing insight, treasure, ripe for the plunder, is being left untouched.

“It’s definitely something that people are just waking up to,” says Jennings. “People are often surprised when they see what carefully collected data can do.”

Consider The Economist, one of the world’s most influential business magazines, boasting a readership over 35 million. In February this year, they announced they will now be publishing a weekly newsletter entirely dedicated to “bringing unprecedented understanding of the complexities behind our articles, charts and visualisations.” Proof that business leaders are also business readers, and they know the value of business intelligence and analytics.

Good news: the non-profit sector isn’t too far behind. Direct Relief is a massive, worldwide medical relief non-profit organization based in California, noted by the magazine Fast Company as one of their “10 most innovative not-for-profit companies.” Focused on the provision of life-saving health items that people lack access to, they employ business intelligence and analytics to great success.

Some of the Items they distribute, such as medications, need careful tracking to meet differing worldwide compliance laws. When they were called into action to curb a drastic upswing in opioid overdoses in the US, they were able to deliver 50,000 doses of the overdose medication Naloxone in one week, suddenly making them the world’s largest charitable distributor of the drug. Across the globe in Sierra Leone, they employed the same business intelligence in the aftermath of severe flooding, using previous aid requests to gauge capacity for accepting supplies.

Between 2015 and 2017, Direct Relief doubled their revenue to approximately $1.1 billion, and Direct Relief leaders attribute it to business intelligence and their data management. But that doesn’t mean these techniques are only for large, global organizations.

“Recently, I used a local charity’s website and Google’s website traffic analytics to make a visualization that showed where, when and how they were reaching the most people,” says Jennings. “Their reaction was ‘wow, our communications department really needs to see this.’”

First, clarifying terms

Organizations just beginning to adopt this new way of doing business often find some of the common terms interchangeable. It helps to know that “business intelligence” is the process of collecting, storing and analyzing data from business operations. “Business intelligence is basically people using technology and data information to make relevant analyses and improve decision making, becoming more data driven,” says Jennings.

“Data analytics” generally refers to any form of data analysis—taken from spreadsheets, databases, or apps—used to uncover trends, identify anomalies, or measure performance. “Business analytics” refers more to finding operational insights, such as creating a streamlined workflow or choosing the best vendor for critical supplies.

“Data visualization,” is generally everyone’s favourite part of the process. This is where numerical information and pictorial figures meet. These are data illustrations, often interactive, used to explain abstract ideas, visually support fundraising information, highlight where donated funds are going, and a host of other storytelling purposes. They are not quite the same as infographics—nicely designed information pieces that often use individual data visualizations (e.g., a bar graph) as their components.

Is your data ready?

“Basically, there’s more to it than pretty pictures. You need foundations,” says Jennings. “We need to talk about data management and data governance—people, policies and procedures that make data management possible.”

You’ll want to bring an expert on board at the beginning. When Jennings first visits a client, she commonly finds multiple spreadsheets in multiple departments. “It’s normal to find disparate data because that’s just how people work,” says Jennings. “You work in specialized teams doing certain specific functions.”

One of the things Jennings does to help do is encourage the idea of “a data-driven decision-making culture.” This means thinking about your organization as a whole. When you begin collecting data, don’t just think about what you need to answer your own specific questions—make sure the organization can share a common understanding of the information when it all comes together.

“It requires some governance by leadership,” she says. There needs to be rules across the organization. If one department enters the name “Alberta” into a spreadsheet, for example, and another abbreviates it as “AB,” that detail alone can impair the power of analytics.

First, organizations need to know what questions they want answered. “That’s why you need to get us in earlier,” says Jennings. “We help make strategies to identify, define and organize your data, and figure out the best business processes.” Once this work is done and an organization sees their answers visualized and easily kept-up-to-date, she says, there is no turning back.

“Non-profit organizations are just so busy with their everyday work,” says Jennings. “A lot of them know business intelligence and analytics have to be there, but it’s not part of the culture yet. When that change finally happens, it’s very gratifying to see the results.”

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