The United Way of Greater Portland is looking to get smarter about business. This summer, the $17.5 million nonprofit hired a new business intelligence analyst who will boost the use of data to inform the organization's work, according to Andy Abrams, the United Way's vice president for information technology.
"Measuring things effectively can really be a springboard for an organization," Abrams says. "If we can do that, then we can make better decisions."
Since making a concerted transition to digital record-keeping in 2002, Abrams says the nonprofit has more information than ever before, creating a new need and new possibilities for an intelligence analyst.
Ken Gardiner, who is six weeks on the job, comes to the new position after working as a state statistician who analyzed large data sets dealing with insurance industry regulation. Prior to that, he worked in experimental psychology and taught at the University of Southern Maine.
Searching for new applications for his statistical skills, Gardiner was drawn to the growing field of business analytics – at the intersection, he says, of business decisions and complex databases – where he says, anecdotally, corporations seem to be focusing more of their attention.
"It seems like a trendy job that a lot of businesses are starting to look for," Gardiner says. "I think there was a dichotomy in the past between people who worked on business side and wrote up reports and people in IT that knew the data and system. The idea of this is to have someone who can do both of those things."
After a meeting with representatives from United Way agencies around the country in May, Abrams said that there is an increased focus on data analysis for the organization at the national level.
While how to harness the Portland nonprofit's more than 10 years of information is still being explored, Abrams says immediate goals include building better connections with greater Portland businesses that are part of the nonprofit's annual fundraising campaign and creating better metrics for evaluating the organization's progress on addressing social issues.
"We'll hopefully get a measure of our impact and see that things are going in the right direction," Gardiner says, stating that data ranging from graduation rates to numbers from local social service agencies can help inform the nonprofit's policy goals.
Attention to that data and information from donors, Abrams says, can also help the nonprofit reach out to corporate donors.
"Some of the other work that we're doing is to really understand corporate social responsibility within each company and what that means to the people who work there," Abrams says. "So, if you have a company invested in education and they say that's important to us, we can work to align volunteer opportunities or speakers who can come and talk to them about that."
But with a new focus on data, Abrams says other input that drives the organization's decisions won't be lost.
"There's a difference between being a data-informed organization and being a data-driven organization," Abrams says. "In dealing with issues in the community; if you were to just depend on data alone, you might miss some things."
Abrams says the new position will put greater focus on the type of information that the nonprofit is collecting, with an eye toward the end game.
"The real value here is that we're able to connect the information that we have with meaningful uses rather than recording a bunch of data points that we don't really know what we're going to do with," Abrams says.