Business Intelligence for Nonprofits: An Interview with Steve Williams of Business Objects

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Last month I interviewed Steve Williams, the Community Program Manager of Environment and Technology Programs for Business Objects, for the NetSquared Podcast.

Business Objects is a sponsor of the third annual NetSquared Conference (N2Y3), and is a business intelligence company. To start out, Steve explained what business intelligence means, and how it applies to nonprofits and social enterprise. You can read the edited transcript below, or listen to the podcast:

Steve Williams: Well, first of all, business intelligence is really all about trying to help companies and organizations understand the data and the information they have, and to make better decisions with it. What we typically find is that most organizations are working with some kind of business application, whether it's an HR management system, a financial application, or a database of some kind. Typically, a lot of those applications are really good at collecting information, but they don't provide a very easy way for end users to understand the information that is there, and make decisions going forward.

What Business Objects does is create a set of solutions that allow people to make decisions about what products they should be delivering, how to optimize their sales teams, how to optimize their marketing programs, how to find efficiencies in IT, how to do financial reporting, and so on. That's really what business intelligence is all about, and when we look at what we do, and the type of work that nonprofits and social enterprises are doing, there are a lot of parallels.

When I work with nonprofits and social enterprises, they also have challenges around data and around making decisions, but they're slightly different. They could be around how does a nonprofit best manage the number of volunteers that they have? How do they, if it's a social enterprise, do the financial reporting and illustrate to investors the social benefit that they are creating? How do they manage fundraising campaigns? How do they report results back to donors, governments, and even to the volunteers that are working with them?

What my role is, working with the community team, is to help organizations, like nonprofits and social enterprises, use our reporting tools and our dashboarding tools to deliver that value in the nonprofit space in the same way that we deliver it to the business space.

Britt Bravo: Can you give an example of a particular nonprofit you've worked with, and how your tools helped them?

SW: We work with a number of different ones. We worked with a number of different organizations that were studying and collecting data on homelessness in San Francisco. One of the challenges that organizations typically have in this space, or in any one, is that you've got data coming from multiple different data sources, and the data doesn't match. So, what we did is helped to integrate nine different databases from different systems, into a single environment, and clean up that data as it comes in.

We found out some things like; for example, there are no pregnant homeless men in San Francisco, even though that's what the data was showing! That is very typical of databases when they have been around for a while, and people aren't quite sure who built it, or where the system was done, or maybe, it was done by a consultant five years ago. Those data quality issues are very, very important.

Other examples are working with organizations like the Red Cross, or even the United Way, to provide a way for employees that are doing corporate giving programs (a lot of companies have a season of giving, or a donation program and use our tools) to see how much they've donated to an organization like the United Way. They can see how they compare against other teams in the company, against other companies in the region, and then the nonprofits can use that as a way to show how much money has been donated and distributed out to their organization.

BB: As you know, NetSquared is all about how nonprofits can use the social web for their work. How is Business Objects approaching the Web 2.0 world today, and in the future?

SW: We started looking at software as a service, and the whole social web aspect of things a couple of years ago, and we launched a solution called which takes all of the business intelligence solutions that we have, and delivers them over the web through a software as a service based offering. So, that means if you've got any reports or dashboards, you can simply upload them to our service and anyone anywhere in the world can view these with no infrastructure required.

That piece is very valuable for nonprofits and social enterprises that don't want to be managing backend IT infrastructure, and it's very appealing to have that remote access. But, what we've also done is expanded not just the reporting and dashboarding, but we've really enabled that with connectivity. So, for example, we partnered with, who also works with a lot of social enterprises and nonprofits, so that you can do reporting directly against the database via web services.

For example, if you're using Salesforce for constituent relationship management, volunteer management, donations, and/or fundraising, you can do all those reports and dashboards live over the web, embedded directly inside the Salesforce environment. Everything that we've built is fully open in terms of the API's from the front end as well as the data services connectivity on the back end.

The advantage for that whole Web 2.0 world is to enable the embedding, or mashups, or whatever term you want to use, of our technologies and reporting and dashboards inside other applications, either directly inside from a user interface point of view, or connecting to web services data sources, or even back through the firewall to connect on-premise data sources, and servicing that data in a way that people can consume over the web.

BB: Can you talk a little bit about why Business Objects is sponsoring the NetSquared Conference and how the company is involved with nonprofits and the social enterprise space?

SW: Sponsorship of NetSquared really fits in well with our overall community objective. The goal of the Business Objects community for our company is to create a community of engaged citizens for our employees. So, really what that means is that we go beyond just giving money to organizations. We want to continue to give money donations, but also product donations, and donations of our time and talent as well.

From a product donations standpoint; for example, by working with TechSoup, any nonprofit can get copies of Crystal Reports, Xcelsius and through the TechSoup website, but what we're really interested in is how do we leverage the skill sets of knowledge that we have within our organization, and help build capacity in the nonprofit social enterprise world.

When we look at something like the NetSquared Conference, and we see a culmination of a community of people who are very passionate about social innovation and social change, as well as passionate about technology, it's really a perfect fit for us because that is exactly what we are trying to enable, to make sure that the knowledge we have about how to visualize information, how to communicate that, and how to help people make better decisions with the information they have, that's really what Business Objects is all about.

We see a huge need for that same type of decision-making in the nonprofit social enterprise space. NetSquared is really a perfect fit because it is a whole collection of people that are interested in doing really interesting things, and innovative technology work in the social space. It's a good chance for us to get involved and to leverage our work that way.

BB: Can you talk about what Business Objects is doing today and in the future, with nonprofits and social enterprise in terms of reporting and analytics?

SW: It's definitely been a big trend, especially in the last 5-10 years where funders of all kinds, whether they are private funders, or government organizations, are looking for metrics. They are looking for demonstrating value. They are looking to understand where those numbers get spent.

What we provide are very easy to use tools and solutions that let any organizations demonstrate that kind of performance, usually on a couple different dimensions. For example, an organization would have a financial performance. So, if it's a social enterprise, looking at the amount of goods sold, or even if it is a nonprofit, the donations raised and so on.

Then, you've got your mission, or your mandate related metrics. This could be the number of people served, literacy increased rates achieved, impact on AIDS patient treatments, whatever your organization is about. And then, there are also the organizational sustainability metrics around board training, volunteer engagement, and those kinds of pieces.

What we do is try to help organizations, first of all, understand where that data is being collected. It could be scattered among a number of different systems. And then, also, look at who needs to see this information, and what decisions are they trying to make.

That helps to determine what technology pieces come in because; for example, if you are a board member, you want to see high level information: How are we doing according to plan? You don't necessarily need to go into the nitty gritty details. If you are an Executive Director, or you're an Operations Manager, you do need to drill all the way down to look at what's happening with HR issues, and some of those kinds of pieces.

The final piece is when you look at really going beyond the individual organization, and look more at a systems point of view of trying to demonstrate; for example, to the press or to the government, what the impact of choices are.

For example, if you look at something like a food program. We work with an organization called Potluck Catering in Vancouver that trains disadvantaged youth and gives them job skills through catering programs. That's a good program, but the real impact, and one of the things that really affects that, is the cost of housing and the availability of housing in the downtown area so that the people and the youth that are getting the training actually have somewhere to live that's close to where they are working. Being able to show the linkages between housing costs, and employment, and poverty, and food security issues, is a very powerful thing, and you can use to actually make or force policy decision changes.

BB: You have a pretty cool job title as the Community Program Manager of Environment and Technology Programs for Business Objects. What is your favorite part of your work?

SW: The favorite part of my job is sitting down with nonprofits and social enterprises and really finding out about what they are doing. I mean, for me, the thing I love about it is that the people that work at these organizations are so passionate whether it's about literacy, or child poverty, or abuse against women, or AIDS treatment, whatever the issue is, people are very passionate about it.

My favorite part is really trying to help them tell their story in a better way. Because if you think about it, that's what any kind of report is really all about. You are trying to tell the story. Is it the story of how many people we have helped? Is it the story of what additional resources you need? Is it a story around why this is a problem at a national level and our politicians really need to do something about it?

I really enjoy talking with people to help draw out what those stories are, and helping them articulate how they can get that across to other people, which in the end delivers them either more funding, or the ability to help more people, or to impact policy pieces. That's really the piece that gets me excited.

BB: Is there anything else you want the NetSquared community to know about Business Objects' work?

SW: Well, I think, in terms of which direction to go, I guess, there are a couple of places to go for more information. I definitely want people to check out a couple places. One is, which is where all of our software and service based offerings are hosted.

The other place is, and that's our developer website. That's got tons of code samples, sample applications, videos, white papers, docs, all that kind of stuff. What I'm really interested in is when people are listening to this podcast, or at this Conference, figuring out what are the new innovations, and what are the new things that we could be doing that Business Objects hasn't even thought of yet.

I think that's the real power of the whole Web 2.0 community, the whole social web, is that it enables innovation in a way that we've not even considered. So, I guess, what I ask people to look at is, given those kinds of challenges, and given some of the solutions that we offer, what are some of those unique ways that those could be combined? We're happy and excited to take some of those ideas, and work with people, and try and deliver some really interesting social innovations.