Instant Reporting, No Data Headaches: Tackling the Challenges of Non-Profits
ZAP’s CEO Garth Laird talks to Rick Bawcum, CEO and founder of CIMATRI, to discuss the current state of data, analytics, and Business intelligence (BI) in the field of non-profits and professional member associations. A US-based ZAP sales partner and ISV, Cimatri is an expert in this particular market and Rick raises some key issues for businesses in any sector looking to extract value and insight from multiple data sources.
Garth: Rick, it’s good to meet you. Tell us, how did you first hear about ZAP Data Hub?
Rick: It was a combination of Google search results for data management software, data management automation tools, and personal recommendations from conferences. It came to my attention when I started down the path of exploring ELT and data warehouse automation tools because I’m what I would call old-school data wonk. (Rick is too humble to mention he was one of Verizon Wireless first employees and has been in the tech business more than 30 years – his full biog is here.)
Garth: Tell us about the type of customer you work with. What kind of data challenges do they face?
Rick: Well, our customers are a pretty specific niche. They’re non-profit associations here in the US, in the 501(c)(3), (c)(6) category. So not charities, but professional associations. The equivalent of guilds in the UK. In the States, they are known as professional membership associations. And there are thousands of them across the country.
All professional membership associations suffer from a common problem of not being able to get data in an analytics form out of their systems. They tend to be using what I refer to as best-of-breed systems: they'll pick this application for that, and another application for something after that, and another application for something after that. I saw a common problem there from my background in data and analytics. So we went looking for a solution that would allow us to not use the old school ETL setup because that’s so labor-intensive. Instead, I was looking for a data hub and an automated ELT and data warehouse approach, and ZAP kind of came to the fore in that evaluation.
Garth: In terms of IT, what are the similarities and differences for a professional membership association compared to commercial businesses? It sounds like there’s a commonality in terms of having disparate systems.
Rick: Yes, non-profits are prone to using disparate data systems, for sure. And they are actually, in addition to that, more prone to lack the skills to understand that that's a problem. Most of them are working on pretty thin revenue models. So most of the folks that we talk to might not fully understand the difference between a transactional structure and an analytics structure. So, when we educate the market around that, a light bulb moment takes place, and they say, "Oh yeah, we need a place to house this stuff, our data, in an analytics format."
Garth: Do associations and non-profits have specific data sources in common, or is it a real mixture?
Rick: Well, there are two things about this area. Firstly, it's very ‘nichey’ in terms of software options. Secondly, even in that best-of-breed application space, the primary data source for all of them is their CRM systems, although they don't generally call them CRMs. They call them association management systems, or AMS. Its actually one of the various vocabulary challenges we work with – for example, they don't refer to the people who belong to organizations as customers, they refer to them as members.
But association management systems are fundamentally CRMs. In fact, in several of them, the underlying architecture is often Microsoft Dynamics (Dynamics 365 Sales or Dynamics CRM), or it's Salesforce or one of the other common CRM systems. With these comes an important customer question: “how do we connect those systems to a data warehousing structure and an analytics structure?” Not only is there some vocabulary and taxonomy that we work carefully through with associations, but they also need all their systems customized to their specific needs.
Garth: Would it be fair to say that an association might have – especially if they’ve been going a long time – legacy data sources? Customized Dynamics modules, for example, that are very specific to them?
Rick: Absolutely, yes. The CRM – or association management system – is the core of the membership records, but they'll also have learning management systems, too, because many of them are involved in training deliveries, electronically or in person. They'll also be running events, so they have event applications that need to be connected. And, of course, all of them have web presences that need to be analyzed. But usually, most associations have surprisingly, anywhere between half a dozen and a dozen applications. The gorilla in the room is always the AMS or CRM system, and all the others live off of that.
You know, there are lots of tools out there for analyzing web traffic but connecting that data to the profile of the customer (or association member) that's using the website, and analyzing their overall behaviors, that's the real challenge.
Garth: How you have found ZAP Data Hub’s ability to knit all of that together?
Rick: It's been excellent. We've fully implemented it for one of our customers, and we're less than six months into the ZAP partnership. We're in a proof of concept with another, and we’re about to talk to our entire industry about the product and our partnership at ASAE, the American Society of Association Executives Technology Conference. They're the umbrella organization for all associations, most of us who are professionals in this space are members of that organization, and they have their Technology Conference & Expo on December the 4th and 5th. CIMATRI will be exhibiting and talking about our work with ZAP Data Hub.
Garth: Where is the association market, in terms of BI tools and that journey? Is everybody using Tableau and Power BI, or are they using other self-service or customized software?
Rick: Generally speaking, the associations are not very ‘tech forward,’ or they haven't been thus far. The most advanced tend to be the exceptionally large associations like those in the healthcare sector. Healthcare associations generally have more funding, so they're doing a lot of work with analytics tools. But they're the exception. There is probably 5% or 10% of the market that has the resources to accomplish that.
What you more commonly find are what I would characterize as ‘analytics in a box’ BI solutions. Generally, those vendors go in to see the customer, or the association, and do all the discovery work. They’ll then build an analytics solution for them in a box. But, if you need any changes at all, you have to go back to them.
Cimatri, on the other hand, sits in a middle ground. We can create standardized connectors to the big platforms but still give them the ability to shape their data (using ZAP Data Hub’s intuitive UI based data modeling functionality), and their analytics, and then work with Power BI or Tableau or whatever reporting/BI system they have in place. We prefer this approach to the ‘BI in a box’ solutions where you just don't have any control over the data, or shaping it, or any of that.
Garth: I guess a non-profit or a professional membership association needs a lot of flexibility as it evolves? And, alongside BI, analytics, and data visualization, do many organizations with lean IT teams simply require fast reporting on key metrics?
[Rick:] Yes, fast reporting on key metrics – and from all areas of the organization – that’s really the key objective. It’s that struggle with operational reporting where ZAP Data Hub really helps. To just get the dashboards and the metrics that might be commonplace in the commercial environment. And it’s ironic because we see so many non-profits attending conferences where everybody is talking about Watson, AI, and all of those things, but their main struggle is getting faster reporting and some cross-functional insight from their existing, structured data.
Garth: That’s interesting. ZAP itself has been at many conferences this year, and we meet many businesses that are struggling with cross-functional analysis and reporting from their ERP, finance and CRM systems. But all the headlines are about data lakes, Machine Learning, and AI. We're at an interesting juncture.
Rick: They’re sexy topics. But the structured data still needs to be mastered. You still need operational metrics. You can get a lot of insights just by cross-cutting, slicing and dicing against multiple data sets. The example that always gets the attention of the executives that I talk to is when I ask, “if you could pinpoint what specific member types are doing on your website, then that's useful information to you, right?”. Or if I ask, “what does your data prove is the most popular proposition to a professional member, versus a student member?” Today, they're not closely connected enough to the data sources and the CRMs to have that insight. You need to be able to cross-pollinate with various databases and resources.
Garth: And speaking of cross-pollinating various databases and resources, how prevalent in non-profits is good old Excel? It’s certainly still one of the main data sources in any commercial entity.
Rick: Yes, I agree absolutely. That's the most common way to do it. Some of them may have had a BI software salesman come in and say, "If you just buy our self-service BI tool, it'll solve all of your analytics problems." But what they do is, they immediately connect it to their transactional data in their CRM or multiple Excel spreadsheets, and then wonder why they can't get the kind of analytics that I just described. And it’s because they've skipped the whole transformation process of data into an analytics form.
They typically go through a series of heavy lifts. Exporting the data, scrubbing the data through the tables, all of that. They struggle mightily with just the definitional aspects of data, the semantic layer. When I say members, for example, it's the old adage: you get three C-levels in a room – one representing finance, and one representing sales, another one representing operations – and you ask them to tell you when they want revenue to be booked. It's always three different answers!
Garth: Exactly. ZAP Data Hub automates those labor-intensive processes straight off. Which I presume you can then tailor depending on the specific associations that you're dealing with.
Rick: Yeah, it’s something that attracts me to a hub technology like this, and ZAP Data Hub does a good job of it. I've been around the business for about 40 years now. I was at Verizon Wireless 25 years ago, and we were building massive data warehouses. We had to struggle with the ETL tools because it wasn't practical to ingest all the data and deal with it in the data lake. All of which took a lot of people and a large amount of time. Now, because storage has gotten cheaper, and computing power has gotten a little cheaper, you can ingest the data, and deal with it once you get it into your data hub. That's the thing I love about ZAP Data Hub: we no longer have to do all of that front-end shaping and definition work.