Dealing with Disasters: BI and Analytics Drive Nonprofit's Success
A top-ranked, billion-dollar nonprofit has made itself more effective, efficient, and transparent with BI and analytics software. Getting good data directly into the hands of staff is dramatically increasing its ability to respond quickly when disasters strike.
- By Linda L. Briggs
- January 17, 2018
Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. California wildfires. Rohingya refugees. Drought in East Africa. The opioid crisis in the U.S. Devastation in Puerto Rico and across the Caribbean. Flooding in Sierra Leone. Two major earthquakes in Mexico.
What does this long list of recent or ongoing disasters have in common? Each triggered an immediate response from Direct Relief, a huge, worldwide medical relief nonprofit based in California that is on Fast Company's list of the 10 most innovative not-for-profit companies. The organization, which works in the U.S. and in 80 countries around the world -- anywhere there is a health or humanitarian crisis -- focuses on providing health commodities that people don't have access to or can't afford but are needed to save lives.
The nonprofit, founded in the aftermath of World War II, is now using BI and analytics software to get information to staff more quickly and effectively, thereby dramatically increasing their ability to respond quickly when tragedy strikes. Direct Relief, which prides itself in using analytics tools just as any for-profit business would, is currently ranked No. 1 on Charity Navigator's list of the 10 best charities in the U.S.
Direct Relief is tailor-made for business intelligence and analytics software -- it must move quickly and without notice as unexpected disasters hit, and its huge inventory, which includes many medications, needs close tracking for complex and differing worldwide compliance laws. (Drug distribution is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world.) Much of its stock consists of corporate donations, including medicine, vaccines, prescription drugs, and over-the-counter supplies such as bandages.
Use of BI software to make data readily available to Direct Relief staff and allow them to respond more quickly has real-world, practical applications that can be hugely rewarding, according to CEO Thomas Tighe. As an example, Direct Relief recently -- and unexpectedly -- became the largest charitable distributor of the overdose medication Naloxone, which is in huge demand to address the opioid crisis in the U.S. That required rapid analysis and scenario planning around 4,000 facilities in the U.S. with varying levels of need for Naloxone -- the first 50,000 doses were sent out within the first week after Direct Relief received them. Afterward, Tighe said, "We got a call from Northern California saying thank you, we just had two [overdose] saves this week. ... In the past, we just didn't have the data. We do now and it's exciting for us to see it put to good productive use."
Moving from Traditional BI Systems
Direct Relief is using two noteworthy tools for data discovery, self-service BI, analytics, and reporting -- Qlik and TimeXtender. Prior to the move to Qlik and TimeXtender, Direct Relief had a more traditional SAP BI system in place used mostly by the finance team, which some staff members continue to use. The biggest issue, according to Director of IT Dawn Long, was the product's steep learning curve and difficulty of use. Moving to Qlik solved that problem almost immediately, she said: "Qlik just made it really easy for everyone in the organization to suddenly see data."
The company began using Qlik two years ago, then brought in TimeXtender a year later for better data governance (such as consistent naming conventions) and to help make sure data models weren't duplicated. For example, Qlik lets users create QlikView data files, called QVDs, that are essentially exported subsets of data that can be accessed quickly and repeatedly. Reusing QVDs saves time, Long said, and helps avoid duplicating data. It also raised a challenge, however, because different people working with a QVD might use different naming conventions in a dashboard, for example, or eliminate leading zeros in scripts. The solution? Adding TimeXtender, which helps ensure that all data is cleansed correctly for the QVDs.
Data Governance and Quality
Using Qlik has been a game-changer for the organization in many ways, including the amount of time it is saving staff -- virtually all of whom now use Qlik dashboards -- and the widespread and instant availability of data. From the start, Tighe has used Qlik to answer detailed questions; he keeps upwards of 15 Qlik dashboards open.
"It's all there and it's all really easily searchable, without having to ask someone to write the query, then get the information, then rewrite the query because they didn't really understand what you were asking," he said. "It's really liberating for those who aren't experts in any system. You don't have to be. You can just get the information you need, when you need it."
For month-end finance committee meetings, Long said, "our controller used to spend two days preparing a packet for them. Now, she does it in two hours."
According to Director of Communications Tony Morain, the process of getting a report prior to Qlik was tedious. "I would articulate a question, then send it to someone who understood how to pull the information," he said. All that has changed now. "With Qlik," he said, "I'm able to see everything immediately." In addition, Morain said, with TimeXtender in place, he is assured that the information is correct: "It's been pretty transformational for the organization."
Using analytics, Morain said, the organization can also anticipate the nature of requests in an emergency. During flooding in Sierra Leone last summer, Direct Relief used previous requests for aid to anticipate capacity for accepting supplies.
Clearly, the use of Qlik and TimeXtender has had a definite return on investment. "One of our big constraints is space," Long said. "When manufacturers offer us donations, people would have to walk out to the warehouse and see how full it was to see if we could accept a truckload of product. Now, they can see that very easily" through a Qlik dashboard.
It's also helped with use of rack space in the Direct Relief warehouse. Staff can now get to supplies much more rapidly. In an emergency, product information is quickly available through dashboards, such as exact quantities on hand, product codes, and details such as whether a medication is approved for use in the country that needs it, and whether approval is needed from a government. "We don't send anything that isn't requested and approved beforehand," Long said. That often means first sending a long list of potential items, "but sending someone a spreadsheet of 12,000 items makes it hard for them," she explained. Instead, based on history, Direct Relief can use analytics to whittle down the list and accelerate the process.
The organization's fiscal year 2017, which ended June 30, showed rapid growth, with $1.1 billion in revenue, roughly double what is was just two years ago. Much of that growth, Tighe said, can be attributed to technology, plain and simple. "It wasn't because we're twice as smart or have twice the staff or money we had before," Tighe said. "It really is a tribute to the power of the technology and systems we've applied, including TimeXtender and Qlik. It's been really, really powerful for us to be able to manage more information, understand things faster, make more informed decisions, and increase speed and accuracy at the same time."
More About Direct Relief: Drawing a Parallel with Business from the Start
Initially a private philanthropic endeavor begun by two post-World War II immigrants in 1948 with their own money, Direct Relief's founders looked to the business community initially, setting an early model of corporate responsibility. Today, the organization still honors those roots -- the vast majority of its revenue is from corporate donations of drugs and materials. "We encourage businesses to use their skills and resources in places where there isn't a profit incentive," CEO Thomas Tighe said, "but there is a high humanitarian need."
Direct Relief is a nonprofit in character, Tighe pointed out, but its functions mirror those of the business community. Distribution of supplies is handled like a corporation, for example, with a focus on efficiency and functional performance. "We're running a non-profit just like a for-profit business," Tighe said. "We look for inspiration in how businesses solve problems, realizing that they are solving them for a different reason, but ultimately the solution is exactly the same."
Linda L. Briggs is a contributing editor to Upside. She has covered the intersection of business and technology for over 20 years, including focuses on education, data and analytics, and small business. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.