The word dashboard evokes images of cruising down the open road at 70-miles-per-hour or being stuck in traffic, praying that the gas light does not flip on. In both cases, the car’s dashboard is compiling and signaling information to the driver in a way that is easy to access, interpret, and then act upon, like second nature.
So it’s easy to see why foundations, and specifically grants managers, would want to use the dashboard concept to help process the vast amounts of data we oversee, compiling diverse data points in a single location, communicating key facts, and sending signals to those who need to act on the information. Dashboards are rapidly becoming a necessary tool in the era of big data and one that grants managers have been leading from the front, to position themselves as the information experts in their foundations.
It might seem easy to dismiss dashboards as just the latest and greatest technology in philanthropy, a fad without any lasting value. But two case studies illuminate how careful needs analysis and implementation have delivered positive (and lasting) changes to the grantmaking process, resulting in a deeper analysis of strategy, higher level communications among departments, and the streamlining of workflow.
Marcus McGrew, Director of Grants Management for the Kresge Foundation, attended a presentation on financial dashboards at the 2010 Grants Managers Network Conference. Immediately excited about the potential impact on his foundation’s processes, he pitched the idea to executive leadership, who approved the project and tapped him to lead its development and implementation.
Initially, the project goal was to develop a tool that would let the program staff report, manage, and forecast grant data. But in fully exploring how a dashboard tool could influence foundation-wide operations, McGrew initiated a collaborative development process that included representatives from the program, finance, human resources, and communications departments. Working together, the team developed a set of dashboards to produce information that each department needed in order to act cohesively.
For example, program officers had historically maintained their own spreadsheets that shadowed the foundation’s grants database. This shadow data provided a way for program officers to budget against approved grants, as well as grants they were researching or expected to award later in the year. As many grants managers know, these shadow spreadsheets create isolated data sets that can show vastly different accounting of the same data. In the dynamic setting of a large-asset foundation, being able to use and rely on one data source is critical.
The dashboard developed by Kresge enables program staff to track anticipated requests separately but alongside approved grants, thereby providing a full picture of data. Staff needs: fulfilled. Shadow system: eliminated. According to McGrew, the dashboard system’s impact was also immediate and wide-ranging beyond the program department. With a few clicks, grant data can be organized by program, focus, or strategy—three critical codes at the Kresge Foundation. Decisions at all levels have become data-driven, because the data is quickly available in a digestible format. This has triggered a higher level of analysis, since conversations can quickly focus on strategy because the data-level questions are
answered before the conversation begins The dashboard system has created what McGrew calls “a culture of evidence.” The dashboard method of processing data had an additional benefit: it validated the foundation’s existing coding framework, proving that the foundation was already collecting the right data.
McGrew is now working to create a dashboard that will provide historical giving data about each nonprofit organization that the Kresge Foundation has supported, as well as custom analysis of grantmaking by type of support and geographic area served.
As the icing on the proverbial data cake, the Kresge Foundation’s Board of Directors will soon be seeing the dashboards in their customized electronic board books.
Kim Blanchard’s experience with dashboards began with a decision from the Wellspring Advisors’ executive team. With offices in two different cities; staff providing a variety of functions, including research, program management, grants administration, and monitoring and evaluation; and the organization’s diverse areas of philanthropic interest, there was no existing mechanism to understand the sum of operations at an organizational level at any given moment. As the director of grants management, Blanchard was part of a team that was motivated to find a solution.
In comparison with the methodical approach to a custom solution at the Kresge Foundation, Blanchard oversaw the implementation of more standard dashboards that could be deployed almost immediately. This solution ensured a fast implementation, though it also meant some limitations with the forecasting functionality (therefore, the program department’s shadow system still lives).
However, with 18-months of experience analyzing dashboard data, Blanchard affirmed that the dashboards are doing exactly what Wellspring Advisors staff thought they would do. In particular, the dashboards have helped identify trends that have a direct impact on operations in the grants management department. Users can view how much money (either by payment or award amount) is assigned to any code in the database over a period of years. For instance, the dashboard can show whether general operating support is decreasing. If that is a surprising development, the staff can think and talk about what’s happening.
Blanchard regularly monitors grant structures to compare the level of expenditure responsibility grantmaking to public charity grantmaking. If there is a spike in expenditure responsibility grantmaking, she can assess how the grants management team allocates its time, determine staff training that might be necessary to build capacity, and identify whether new or stronger procedures should be implemented.
Like the Kresge Foundation, Wellspring’s dashboards have facilitated deeper conversations and analysis around grantmaking strategies. Blanchard notes that one member of the executive team is using the program on a daily basis, which has reduced the number and changed the type of questions being asked to much more targeted inquiries for specific information that goes beyond the data offered on the dashboards. There is a lot more time to discuss the “whys” because the same “what’s” are already available to all staff.
Ready or not, big data has arrived. In an age where information is instantly available, foundations will continue to feel and respond to mounting pressure, both internal and external, to examine and share, and draw conclusions from the vast amounts of data accumulated and warehoused in databases. As the experiences at the Kresge Foundation and Wellspring Advisors demonstrate, grants managers are uniquely positioned and qualified to transition from data guardians to the data commanders. Dashboards are one way to harness the power of big data, and this puts the grants manager squarely in the driver’s seat. n