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How one nonprofit embraced a more data-driven strategy

Nonprofits don't generally have the resources of traditional enterprises, which can make implementing a big data analytics strategy difficult. But one group showed it's possible.

If there's one industry sector that stands to benefit from big data analytics, it's the nonprofit community. Everything from donor outreach to targeting services can be part of a data-driven strategy. But nonprofit organizations often lack the resources to truly capitalize on the data they have -- a problem that one set out to resolve with some outside help.

"The nonprofit community is incredibly focused on data," said Ann Hartman, director of strategic data analysis at Connect2Help211, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit. "We're focused on outcomes, so to be able to collect and publish the data, make it visual, it's like gold."

Connect2Help211 links individuals in the central Indiana region to community services, which could include anything from food and housing assistance to domestic violence intervention. The organization has long maintained a database of call center data and used the information to put together reports on the state of communities it serves. But that was traditionally a tortuous process.

Everything was stored in a Microsoft Access database, and Hartman said it would take separate queries for each data point included in the report. Additionally, the database couldn't record certain fields from call center forms, which meant potentially important data was simply being discarded.

Hartman and others at the organization had periodically tried to clean up the system, but the group didn't have the resources to implement a data-driven strategy. A previous attempt to standardize on an Oracle database went nowhere. "Even though folks have the skills, other things just get in the way," Hartman said.

Enter the Data School, an apprenticeship-like program run by The Information Lab, a London-based company that offers training and technical consulting services on Tableau and Alteryx software. Andy Kriebel, the school's "head coach," heard about Connect2Help211 about a year ago, after the nonprofit approached the Tableau Foundation, a Tableau-affiliated operation that provides free temporary software licenses to nonprofits.

Kriebel decided to have students in his program work on a data infrastructure for Connect2Help211 on a pro bono basis, using Alteryx's data preparation software and Tableau's analytics and data visualization tools. "We recognized that this would be a really good project to learn how to wrangle really, really messy data," he said.

The team set up an extract, transform and load process with the Alteryx software that automatically takes the call center data from the Access database and puts it in a format that can be leveraged by Tableau. Kriebel's students also created an interactive dashboard that reports on community needs and services provided. Users can drill down to see what's happening in their ZIP code, and state legislators can see data specific to their districts. The team is still working out a couple details with the tool before it goes public, but the Data School recently received an Alteryx Excellence Award for its work on the project.

Hartman said the capabilities provided by the tool will help with community engagement and fundraising, since a lot of the organization's funding comes from the state. The tool could help raise awareness of Connect2Help211's work among those who could potentially fund the efforts, she noted.

Connect2Help211 is now looking to export its data-driven strategy to other nonprofits across the country. While resources may be limited, the interest and utility is there to make data a bigger part of what nonprofits do. "Now, we have these interactive dashboards that people can drill down into," Hartman said. "That makes it personal."

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