Hire a Chief Data Officer

I’ve been doing a lot of consulting recently, which has resulted in a several months long hiatus from writing on this site. Happily, my greater volume of consulting engagements has given me more opportunities to give people bad (and hopefully some good) advise, which means more content for Full Contact Philanthropy.

Recently I have been reflecting on some particularly bad advise I gave to one of my customers. Over the summer I was hired by a large provider of housing and homeless services to improve the operational speed at which chronically homeless clients were being placed into housing. The project went well, and by the end of the project the executive team was seeing the value data can bring to their organization on an ongoing basis

The executive director asked me to draft a memo outlining what the organization should look for in an internal analytics hire. Ideally, the executive said, the hire would be able to work both on social outcomes data as well as helping the development team improve its use of donor data. I advised the executive against hiring one person to oversee all of the organization’s data needs, as I felt there was value in having specific domain experience (such as a background in homeless services or fundraising) before jumping into an issue specific data set.

I was wrong.

By telling the executive he should hire two different analysts, I scared him off of bringing in more data talent entirely, as I took what already looked like a budget sheet stretch (one new hire with a non-trivial skill set) to something completely out of reach.

Furthermore, while domain experience is important, the organization already had sufficient internal domain expertise. The development folks know development really well. And the program team is top notch. What they didn’t have was internal capacity in sifting through the volumes of data the organization collected each day.

Instead of trying to argue for hiring analysts who intimately know the organization’s core mission, instead I should have advised a management structure where the development and program teams make data requests to a data team, allowing development and program staff to identify the right questions, and letting the data team (or individual to start) focus on answering those questions with the data available.

As I’ve thought about this issue further, and gotten a closer look at the data needs of both the program and development sides of nonprofits, the more I am convinced that having a Chief Data Officer (someone whose sole responsibility is focusing on the data needs of the entire organization) makes a lot of sense.

The idea of a Chief Data Officer has been growing in popularity in the for-profit world. There are some nonprofits that have had success employing chief data officers as well. However, the idea of the Chief Data Officer has not permeated throughout the social sector. Instead, the nonprofits that have employed heads of data have more obviously quantifiable interventions, generally nonprofits that focus on measuring online engagement like DoSomething.

However, there is an exciting, and much broader opportunity, for various types of organizations to bring in Chief Data Officers. Indeed, regardless of what your organization does, every organization (business, nonprofit, foundation, whatever) traffics in some sort of information. Given the importance of data, not just now but historically as well, a Chief Data Officer is as logical, and essential, a hire as good director of programs, development, and Chief Financial Officer.

I’ve complained before that the rhetoric around data in the social sector is too hallow, and thinking too shallow. Part of the block in moving from concept to action in realizing the value of data is that organizations have not invested sufficiently in figuring out how data works in their managerial structures.

Mario Morino rightly encouraged the sector to think more intelligently about how to manage to outcomes. Managing to outcomes is not just about outcomes reporting software, but investing in people and process. I couldn’t be more excited about the fact that my work is giving me the opportunity to help organizations think more seriously about how to build data cultures. It’s a theme I’m passionate about and plan to expand on more in subsequent posts.