Camping Out and Teaming Up: Building Powerful Insights with SAS

What happens when you realize you’re further behind than you thought? In an article recently published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the authors stated that 75% of non-profit organizations collect data, but only 6% believe they are effectively using that data. Until recently, the IVMF at SU would have been in the majority, collecting, yes, but not using data to its full potential. The IVMF’s primary focus has been on serving our military connected population through programs and applied research. This strategy was successful – today our organization delivers 10 programs across three portfolio areas, and leads multiple research and evaluation projects aligned across each.

Over that time, we were amassing all kinds of data, and using it as many nonprofits do – to be transparent with our stakeholders, to educate and advise those working in our sector, and to produce insights for ourselves as best we could. However, we discovered, through our partnership with SAS—a global leader in data analytics software and education—that there was so much more we needed to build in order to realize our full potential. We were at the very early stages of the SAS Information Evolution Model. We needed to rethink how we organized, analyzed, and communicated with data. There needed to be a “data culture” at the IVMF, and with SAS, we began to cultivate it.

The whole story of how we connected with SAS can be found in a white paper titled, “Building Analytics Capacity in the Social Sector,” in which we discuss the journey to improve our data capacity, as well as a short video produced by SAS

We can rebuild! We have the technology!

First, we needed to better organize our data infrastructure, and along with that, the tools to properly collect data, store it, and analyze it. Second, we needed people who not only had the IT skills to properly utilize the tools and infrastructure, but we also needed people who could put that data to use based on our mission and purpose, and properly and simply communicate it to others inside the organization. Fortunately, with SAS employees involved in the process, we have been able to invest in a team focused on end-to-end use of SAS tools, from working toward creating ETL processes that are more sophisticated, to working to provide better visualize insight from our data.

We began using SAS Visual Analytics (VA) and Data Management Studio (DM Studio) in early 2018, and have already seen major changes. Our reach across the country, staff in disparate locations, and data diversity—sources, fields, formats, interpretation, etc.—all complicated the path to analytical maturity. With DM Studio, complicated datasets can be cleaned, merged, and processed much more efficiently, which allows us to better manage our data as well as support direct connections to visualization software, which allows all of our stakeholders to access, interact with, and interpret data. Therefore, we cannot overstate the importance of being able to do this work more efficiently, and DM Studio has shortened that path considerably.

In VA, we have been able to create dashboards for a multitude of uses across the IVMF portfolio of programs. For AmericaServes, our national community-based support and care coordination program, IVMF program managers and coordination centers can regularly look at data about service providers—such as healthcare, housing, legal, etc.—in their networks, in order to identify potential service gaps and opportunities. For our entrepreneurship programs, near real-time data on program demographics, progress through entrepreneurship training, and financial comparison data allows program managers to better learn from their experiences and plan for future programs. For IVMF’s career preparation and employment program, Onward to Opportunity (O2O), not only are we in the development stages of internal dashboards to report demographic and program data, but SAS Certified Base Programmer certification is also offered as part of the O2O curriculum. This lets us serve our clients two-fold: at one level, equipping our team with the tools to manage and visualize the progress of their cohorts more effectively; at another, giving veterans and their spouses/partners the significant skills to be competitive in the workforce.

Summer Love: IVMF “SAS Camp”

In an effort to further our education, and increase our ability to take full advantage of the tools and opportunities offered by our partnership, SAS hosted the IVMF evaluation and data analytics team (all but 2 of us) in early August, at the SAS campus in Cary, North Carolina. We, (the team) called it “SAS Camp” and it’s not an exaggeration to say that we were extremely excited (see photo at the top). Employees across the company presented to us on a variety of topics including SAS technical support, communities, and advanced analytics capability in VA that frankly left our team awestruck. Touring the campus, the excitement ratcheted up even further as we began to understand more about SAS culture—SAS CEO Dr. Goodnight’s mineral collection was an especially big hit for our group. Over the course of the visit, beyond the education we were provided and the gratitude we felt at being able to provide direct feedback to R&D and education leadership, we were able to develop relationships with SAS employees that have been invaluable to us.

Dan Piston, IVMF Program and Evaluation Manager, at the SAS camp holding a mineral

The Evaluation & Analytics team left SAS Camp invigorated. The whole group walked around for at least a week in a bubble of excitement, hope, and new energy toward our work. As the IVMF scales and expands its programmatic offerings, our team is committed to growing our own capacities to offer continued support. Thanks to SAS, we are becoming more advanced in our analytics and business intelligence capabilities, and as we dive deeper into our data, we have more of the answers as more complex questions emerge that help us push our knowledge further. We also have the resources to advance our professional development through SAS coursework, and an extensive pool of knowledge and encouragement from SAS Support Communities. But, most importantly, the relationships we have with SAS teams and individual employees are empowering us to learn together, and benefit from each other’s perspectives to drive better insights as we serve the veteran and military connected community.

(Left Photo: Dan Piston, IVMF Program and Evaluation Manager, holding a meteorite from Dr. Goodnight’s extensive mineral collection.)