Last year I worked with Heather O’Hara, the Executive Director of Potluck Cafe to put into practice some of the techniques I have been writing about. As you can see from the story below, experience taught both of us a lot about the value of this work and how to make it more effective in the future.
The Potluck Cafe & Catering Society in Vancouver, Canada, one of the city’s most successful social enterprises, operates a cafe and corporate catering service generating revenue of approximately $1 million per year. With this revenue, Potluck is able to provide over 26,000 free meals to residents of the Portland Hotel Society – residents with severe addiction, mental and physical health issues. In addition, Potluck hires and trains local residents, providing meal support, bus passes and life skills coaching. Even with these successes, however, Potluck was hard-pressed to quantify and articulate the value it was delivering to funders and community stakeholders, and therefore having a difficult time engaging their Board of Directors in effective strategic planning.
Like Potluck, most nonprofit organizations face heavy demands for data reports, studies and proposals showcasing their mission and social cause. Unfortunately, most of these organizations are often stuck needing to spend vast amounts of their scarce time and resources trying to identify, locate and portray the necessary data in a meaningful way on a case-by-case basis. As a result, much reporting is solely anecdotal, hindering an organization’s ability to effectively demonstrate their value and engage in effective planning.
To address this need locally, Vancouver’s Vancity Community Foundation and other funders came together with Potluck and other select local organizations to form the “Demonstrating Value Project”. This initiative was designed to explore frameworks that could better enable these organizations to understand, communicate and assess their financial performance, organizational sustainability and mission-related impact. SAP is a major funder of the project, contributing financial resources, strategic advice, technical resources and software.
Having witnessed the benefit of SAP Business Object solutions in the corporate sector, Potluck’s Executive Director Heather O’Hara suggested exploring SAP Business Objects’ Xcelcius technology to see how it could meet the needs of the Demonstrating Value Project. Heather recognized that introducing visualizations into data reporting could help enable nonprofits to communicate issues and progress towards goals in a “simple, non-technical and engaging format”.
We knew that without skilled support, the technical capability to effectively leverage a solution of this nature was often out of reach for organizations like Potluck, and partnered with them to provide skilled volunteers to establish the needed direction and scope of the project. This engagement involved an approximate total of 6 weeks of direct collaboration time and was a very iterative process. Because you are telling a story through communicating data, because it’s visual, there naturally has to be a back-and-forth with any client to make sure you have the right data components in place to tell this right story, and are using the best visual components to paint the desired picture.
Working directly with the Potluck Executive Director, I began with the important non-technical first step in the process: helping the organization understand and flesh out what it really needs to demonstrate, what it wants to measure and what it wants to ultimately demonstrate to its Board of Directors. I then worked with the client to do an inventory of data – gathering and assessing what is often disperse financial information from a variety of accounting, customer service and sales software, to identify where the needed data is stored, in this case QuickBooks, Excel and Survey Monkey, among others. Where the organization did not have ready access to supporting data, I helped Potluck identify categories of information it could gather to demonstrate impact, and put together a plan to ensure that they could easily get that data going forward. In the case of Potluck, that included helping them show the improvement of job satisfaction and life skills of the local residents employed in their program, in addition to the more direct outcomes of revenue generated and free meals provided. Being able to demonstrate this ‘extended value’ provided by its programs is a critical component of demonstrating Potluck’s overall community value.
Once the Potluck staff worked to export the identified data from the appropriate sources, we were able to then import the resulting spreadsheet into Xcelcius and build a customized, graphic dashboard.
As a result of the skill and tools provided by SAP, Potluck is now able to generate data-driven, graphic, high-impact snapshots of the organization’s financial, organizational and mission-related metrics, and what-if analysis for funding and program decisions. Potluck had entered this project in the hopes of better informing and engaging its Board of Directors, and Heather now laughs to recall that upon seeing the dashboard for the first time, the immediate reaction of her Board of Directors was “Wow! We do all that?” She elaborates that “the dashboard [has become] a great way to communicate to the board both our breadth of programs and depth of impact.” Heather was also happy to see that this tool has become an internal reporting mechanism by which Potluck can measure its accountability. “The dashboard provides insight to the detailed aspects of our operations. [Having this information] tells people that our organization is innovative, progressive, and a leader in terms of taking on new initiatives like technology and new business practices like dashboarding.”
In addition to the direct benefits of the Xcelcius tool itself, the exercise of identifying, gathering and assessing existing data and the additional support provided by SAP in setting up effective, integrated processes for gathering that data on an ongoing basis has been key for Potluck. From Heather’s perspective, “to not just invest money or even products but your core business skills is incredibly beneficial support for a company to provide” and helps make their other forms of support “more meaningful” as a result of that assistance.
Performing this type of service for nonprofit organizations is an approach for meaningful community investment that also builds on SAP’s core competencies. Employees have the opportunity to are asked to step outside of their daily tasks to leverage the company’s product expertise while working in a fresh environment, with new and more intimate client interaction. This type of engagement also offers the company an opportunity for employee growth and product development through the learnings gather on-the-ground from these clients, as well as business development by creating a new pipeline of future clients and references.
With what we have learned, SAP volunteers are currently working on three parallel projects in Vancouver implementing dashboards for non-profits. I’ll post the stories on those as the projects move along.
The Demonstrating Value Project is moving ahead as well with more social enterprises going through the process and training and speaking in Toronto, Scotland and coming up at the Social Enterprise Alliance Summit in San Francisco in April. I will be speaking about our work with my colleagues Bryn Sadownik and Elizabeth Lougheed Green from the Vancity Community Foundation.