Nonprofit's digital transformation puts young people to work

By becoming a data-driven organization, Philadelphia Youth Network has gained the capability to deploy funding faster and more efficiently and has also gained the equivalent of one to two full-time employees by automating workflows.

philadelphia youth network
Credit: Philadelphia Youth Network

Digital transformation and the capability to leverage data to seize new opportunities and find efficiencies isn't just for the private sector. Public sector organizations like Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN) are putting their data to work to find new and better ways to operate.

Putting Philly's youth to work

PYN was born out of the federal Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which required local workforce investment boards and youth councils within those boards to be established in each local area of a state. Today, PYN is one of the main sources of jobs for youth in Philadelphia, having helped place more than 126,000 of them into jobs and internships since its founding 15 years ago.

To perform its mission, PYN connects with public and private sector organizations, from school districts to social services to hundreds of businesses. And it isn't just about finding young people jobs, says Michael Pompey, CIO of PYN. It's about preparing Philadelphia youth to participate meaningfully in the 21st century economy and making sure that Philadelphia has a modern workforce that can entice 21st century businesses.

"If you think about traditional work for young people, the very first job you had as a youth, they tend to enter at the bottom and they don't really offer broad horizons," Pompey says. "The expectation was that everyone in the chain kind of shifted up. But the way work functions now, if someone in the middle moves, the first thought is to scan the horizon to plug that hole."

That means those entry-level positions are often a dead-end, which makes the world of work appear very limited to young people. PYN seeks to change that by helping them get internships and opportunities that they might not get otherwise. When PYN helps a young person get an internship at companies like Lockheed Martin or Glaxo Smith Kline, the world of work suddenly starts to look much broader, Pompey says.

Bogged down in the paper jungle

Like many public sector organizations, PYN is limited by its resources. The organization has 46 employees. In the past, it was saddled with manual, largely paper-based processes that made it ungainly at best.

"We were handicapped by the physicality of our data," Pompey says, noting that in summer (when PYN is at its busiest) youth would often stand in long lines snaking out the door and around the block to fill out "a ton of paperwork."

"You had to hope that they brought everything they needed to fill it out," Pompey says.

It wasn't just hard on the young people either. Pompey notes that summers were an all-hands situation. Staff had to work late into the night and it was understood that no one could take a summer vacation.

Manual processes also made it difficult to act upon opportunities when they arose. Pompey says that when donations came in with certain earmarks — intended for a particular community or youth of a particular socio-economic status — PYN often didn't have the agility and flexibility to jump on it immediately. It might take as much as a year to position the organization to take advantage of those funds.

All these factors led PYN to take a hard look at the way it operated.

"Every solution starts with a conversation," Pompey says. "For us it was about changing our own expectation about what excellence is for a nonprofit organization, for us to become uncomfortable with the traditional way that work gets done."

Digital transformation begins

PYN recognized that data was at the heart of its operation. To achieve excellence, its employees had to be able to function in a complex data environment. Pompey's team committed to rebuilding the organization's data management. In its new infrastructure, data is stored in Oracle, SQL Server and MySQL.

The organization receives lots of data from funding partners, and that data needs to be cleaned, formatted and merged with PYN's systems. Doing so manually would require the full-time commitment of two employees, so PYN turned to Toad Data Point from Dell, a suite of data analysis tools that allowed it to automate workflows.

Pompey says Toad allows PYN to build and test a workflow just once. After that, "it just runs." PYN uses Toad to author code, which is then migrated to Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS). PYN leverages QlikView as a dashboard tool.

"Now we have the ability to have information tracked all in one place," Pompey says. "People can see it. We can even send SMS alerts out to staff when certain thresholds are reached."

That means staff can get the data they need, when and where they need it.

"That lets people do the job they're expert in," he says. "We can focus less on the administration and more on the experience we're trying to deliver, more on the connections we can make with youth, contract organizations, funders and partners."

Data-driven approach delivers tangible results

Most important, the new data-driven PYN has become more agile than ever before. Just by increasing its agility in responding to funding bequests, PYN has tripled its capacity for getting youth employed.

"We have access to information about our processes quicker and faster than we ever have before," Pompey says. "We've become the agency that can take hot money, with various strings and conditions attached, and get it out on the street quicker than anybody else with a lower administrative rate than anyone else."

It's also saved Pompey an estimated 25 percent of his workweek during the busiest months and allowed staff to leave the office at 5 p.m. in that same period. They can even take vacations during the summer without fear.

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This story, "Nonprofit's digital transformation puts young people to work" was originally published by CIO.