DataArts: Becoming the Agile Nonprofit
DataArts is a national nonprofit service organization that supports data-informed decision making in the arts and cultural sector primarily by providing access to high-quality financial and programmatic data collected through its flagship service, the Cultural Data Profile (CDP).
In the fall 2014 edition of GIA Reader I outlined a new strategic direction for what was then known as the Cultural Data Project (CDP). This included a redesign of the CDP, which is used by more than ten thousand currently participating nonprofit organizations to report their annual financial and program results, and a commitment to deepen our impact and broaden our engagement with the field. With so much of our focus on technology — the engineering side of our business — we were surprised to learn, in looking back over the past two years, how significantly the transformation process has also reinvigorated the human side of our work. It has changed the nature of our internal and external relationships and the way we think and operate. In the process of becoming DataArts, it seems we have also become what I now think of as the Agile nonprofit.
This summer DataArts unveiled the beta version of the new, enhanced CDP, with features guided by direct input from arts and culture professionals and other stakeholders. Very early in our journey, we made an important choice to prioritize the needs of the cultural nonprofits that provide the data from which the entire sector benefits. Concurrently, we came face to face with a simple truth: we are a technology and data-centered national arts service organization, not one that just happens to use technology to support its work. This second realization brought our board and staff into direct engagement with the technologists and web entrepreneurs upon whom our success would depend. Our technology partners introduced us to Agile development, an approach characterized by learning from short-term successes and failures and by making next-step decisions based on what happens along the way, rather than using more traditional project management techniques that rely on meeting distant, fixed goals and aspirational commitments. What began as an unsettling mash-up of cultures permeated our organization over time and gave birth to a more flexible and empowered approach to managing our nonprofit.
Putting Agile into Practice
The Agile Manifesto was introduced in 2001 by a group of software developers seeking to articulate a set of principles for a customer-focused, collaboration-based, and more efficient way of managing technology projects. 1 The manifesto articulates twelve principles, which DataArts embodied in four disarmingly simple commitments:
- customer-focused and data-informed to assure value
- early to market for continuous learning and improvement
- open to change, not wed to a plan
- led by motivated individuals and self-organizing teams
To paraphrase Albert Einstein, they may be simple but are in no way easy to execute. The nonprofit operating environment means we serve and rely on an array of “customers” and beneficiaries whose needs and sense of value are not always aligned. We work in a world where articulated plans and specified deliverables often drive access to capital from the institutional funders on which we rely. And it is hard (and humbling) for a team like DataArts’, which is equally motivated by the creative process and a drive for being accountable and exceeding expectations, to be comfortable experimenting and learning in the public eye and inviting stakeholders to experience the imperfections of early product development.
Yet these are exactly the reasons that Agile is such a helpful construct for us, and potentially for other nonprofits, in today’s chaotic, constantly changing world. Focusing on user needs and pursuing collaborative interactions encouraged us to involve and listen to our cultural nonprofit users, as well as to those who are grantmakers. We learned about the jobs they are trying to do and the decisions they face every day, and about how data could either alleviate pain points or accelerate their organizations’ efforts in ways that could make participation in the CDP more valuable. We owe a debt of gratitude to the cultural professionals who have contributed their insights along with their data, and to our national service organization (NSO) and research partners, including Americans for the Arts, the League of American Orchestras, and the National Center for Arts Research, among others. They are crucial players in our efforts to streamline cultural data collection and make relevant data-driven insights more readily available to the field.
The Agile principle of customer collaboration also emboldened us to engage in deeper dialogue with public and private grantmakers that see us as a partner, rather than solely as a grant recipient or vendor. It gave us the confidence to report openly on things that didn’t work out as we had originally hoped: we see these not as signs of failure but as valuable cues that we might need to change course to achieve long-term success. We are indebted to our longtime and new local and regional grantmaking partners, who not only offer financial support and implement the CDP in their grant programs, providing a critical incentive for nonprofit participation, but also offer leadership in their communities and wise counsel to us.
Capitalization is imperative for any business, and especially for start-ups. For DataArts to follow the Agile principle of maintaining a continuous and sustainable pace of software development meant that we needed to access sufficient, flexible capital early in our process. Just as Silicon Valley start-ups pursue “pre-seed” and “seed” funding before they begin to scale up, DataArts secured early transition planning funding followed by a second round of transformation capital for technology and educational resource development. We have also successfully established a technology reserve fund for future maintenance and enhancement, which will grow over time. At the same time, we worked hard to streamline our operations to make the organization as efficient and affordable to run as possible. We are especially grateful to Bloomberg Philanthropies, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, The Heinz Endowments, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, William Penn Foundation, and The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage for their generous leadership support through our transformation.
Agility: Not Just for Athletes
When we began working with our technology consultants on the new platform, they introduced us to a new vocabulary and way of working that often made us wonder if we were arts professionals or Olympic athletes. Agile is characterized by a fast-paced, iterative process: (1) explore customer needs and develop requirements; (2) break large or complex tasks into “sprints,” small, well-defined, time-limited (one- to two-week) projects; (3) develop the code, test and expose to users, refine; and (4) repeat until a minimally working product can be released. To guide these sprints, we developed a conceptual prototype of the system and refined it based on user feedback. To gather authentic, real-world input, we put early, unfinished versions of the system out for field pilots and an “early adopter” phase. Rather than having the customary one- to two-hour planning meetings that are standard nonprofit practice, we adopted the discipline of daily fifteen-minute “huddles” or “stand-ups.” Here, developers and staff accounted for progress on their designated tasks and communicated essential information needed to keep the sprint on track and on time. Suddenly our staff found themselves adopting “scrum” mentality, in which they were neither expected nor, frankly, able to “stay in their own lanes.” Everyone’s individual success relied on and contributed to the success of the team, and this made us more focused, efficient, and informed and better able to support one another.
Early to Market for Continuous Learning and Improvement
As of this writing, the beta version of the system is in use and allows arts and cultural professionals to use a new “wizard” feature to complete a data profile tailored to their organization’s level of financial complexity and activities. Early feedback tells us this has made the survey more relevant and easier to complete. We have also incorporated a much-requested short-form profile to make the experience more equitable and less taxing for the very small organizations with annual expenses of less than $50,000, which make up 20 percent of our current universe.
The upside of this approach is that in fewer than twenty-four months of software development we are already gaining critical experience data to guide our future efforts, and we are collecting fiscal year 2015 and 2016 profiles in the new system. We have also successfully consolidated a number of NSO annual surveys with the CDP process. This has helped nationalize the dataset and addressed the need to streamline and standardize myriad data collection initiatives that contribute to “survey burnout” for arts and cultural professionals.
The downside is that we did not wait to have all aspects of the system working and every bug ironed out before “launching” the system. The challenge of meeting Agile’s promise of putting limited versions of working software into the field quickly is just that: we have put out a limited version of the platform, which will not immediately meet everyone’s expectations. We began with services for cultural organizations, and we are now working to add functions for public and private funders who use CDP data for their grantmaking. Doing this was a calculated risk in which we decided that the value of real-time user input to help us prioritize our next investments of time and money would far outweigh the risk of short-term criticism.
Customer-Focused and Data-Informed to Assure Value
Agile reinforced our commitment to listening and encouraged us to take our cues in other areas of our program from our users and from the data rather than from internal assumptions. For example, our education team worked with consultant Andrew Taylor to conceptualize and develop a framework for improving data fluency among arts leaders and empowering them to use data more effectively in their work. This project stemmed from direct conversations with arts professionals about the opportunities and challenges they face when working with data. We also knew from reviewing CDP usage statistics that only some of our users were accessing the analytic reports we provide, so few were likely experiencing the benefit of data-informed decision making. We started by using an iterative feedback process to test, refine, and winnow down a series of five prototype approaches for delivering educational content, ultimately selecting one quite different from what we originally imagined. Rather than a linear series of courses, the new curriculum will offer a portfolio of free, nonsequential online learning options and a range of learning resources, including microlectures, case studies, and concept tutorials.
The first course in the curriculum, “Looking as We Leap,” (available at culturaldata.org/learn) provides a foundation for the “why” and “how” of data-driven decision making. We will pilot three additional courses later this year and undertake an initiative to understand how we can best support the distinct needs of small and under-resourced organizations.
Open to Change, Not Wed to a Plan
Agile influenced our strategic planning process by forcing DataArts executives and board members to get comfortable with the fact that the long-range future is unknowable and that changing conditions will most certainly impact our long-term objectives. While we articulated a vision, high-level goals, and strategic pathways to take, we avoided deeply describing the exact steps or routes we would take to get there. We have continuously reviewed and adapted that framework and added short-term goals based on how the market is responding or on the opportunities or challenges that come into clearer focus with time.
Our response to the rising national concern about issues of equity and fairness in our society, to which the arts and grantmaking communities have given powerful voice, is illustrative. Facing a dearth of data on the demographics of the cultural and artistic workforce and inadequate methodologies and tools for collecting this information, DataArts was in a unique position to address a genuine field need. Without accurate data, answering questions about access to funding or employment opportunities for different populations is nearly impossible.
Although not originally part of the data collection road map anticipated in our 2014 action plan, the DataArts team collaborated with stakeholders and advisors to develop a sensitive and secure methodology to allow for individual demographic reporting by arts professionals, artists, boards, and volunteers. The tool was successfully tested, refined, and piloted in 2015 and will be implemented in a number of arts communities, including Los Angeles County and across the states of Minnesota and New Jersey. An audience demographics pilot is also under way in Houston through the leadership support of the Houston Endowment.
Led by Motivated Individuals and Self-Organizing Teams
It was not as immediately intuitive for DataArts to adopt Agile principles in the nontechnology parts of our operation, but self-organizing teams rapidly emerged as motivated individuals on our staff embraced the approach. For example, they created a scrum and a series of sprints to develop process improvements to enhance the efficiency and scalability of our operations. These teams involved individuals at all levels of the organization and allowed those closest to the situation and with the most knowledge to develop very practical solutions that could be immediately implemented. I had to learn to get out of the way and trust the teams and the process.
When we encountered difficulty in filling key technology positions — a common challenge for financially constrained nonprofits in highly competitive job markets — program and operations staff members stepped out of their traditional roles to bring their deep knowledge of the CDP and arts management to the job of software development. Our contracted technology development partners helped them acquire the requisite language, knowledge, and technology skills on almost a daily basis.
I was constantly amazed by the platform team’s resourcefulness and ability to work independently and develop innovative solutions to technical issues. I watched an entrepreneurial spirit emerge and the “customers first” attitude of Agile thinking take hold; from the senior leadership team to frontline workers in the Support Center, everyone worked together in constant feedback loops, using project management and instant messaging tools, emails, daily stand-ups, and continual updates of a project list and launch calendar to support one another and keep the project moving forward.
Five Agile Implications for the Nonprofit Sector
Our experience adapting Agile practices to the nonprofit environment has resulted in rapid progress toward our strategic goals, and we have learned much along the way. We know, however, that we are not alone in looking for better ways to do our work; cultural nonprofits and grantmakers are exploring how to be more adaptive to change, and how to collaborate more fully with the internal and external communities they serve. In the spirit of learning together, here are five implications drawn from our experience, which may have value to others in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors.
1. Adapt and Delight
Predictive planning, involving a linear series of actions in pursuit of a specific set of predefined outcomes in a certain period of time, works well for known projects in controlled environments. Customer-centered work, however, and that which involves creative or scientific processes require adaptive planning that responds to changing conditions and feedback. In the nonprofit sector this requires adaptation from the grant-seeker and the grantmaker to allow flexibility in the delivery of the work to make room for surprise and delight in terms of its outcomes.
2. Pick Your People
Agile capitalizes on the adaptive capabilities of individuals, which can be an innate or learned strength, as EmcArts and others are showing. Adopt an interview approach that focuses on situational and behavioral responses in addition to skills and knowledge as a first step. Look for natural curiosity, a bent for exploration and independence, comfort with ambiguity, and a desire for data to increase confidence in decision making. Granting more autonomy and independence with respect to goals and supervision results in more organizational learning, faster response time, and generally better outcomes.
3. Measure Success in User Terms
Success in the Agile environment rests on how well the products and services meet real needs — even if those needs turn out to be different from what you first imagined. More learning and less waste are prized outcomes when mission and market come together.
4. Fund with Fact-Inspired Faith, Not Fear
Grantmaking is the venture capital of the nonprofit sector. It requires the same analytical rigor to maximize social return, and a good dose of humility to know that we will not always get it right. If we seek certainty, we will avoid risk, and with it the chance to make meaningful change.
5. Create Value
Creativity is replacing productivity as the key to value creation. 2 Infuse every job in your organization with a responsibility to collaborate with stakeholders; gather insight and empathy; and in response, devise creative solutions and valuable innovations. In doing so, you will add meaningful engagement and trusted relationships to the return on investment you deliver to clients or funders.
- Jim Highsmith et al., “Manifesto for Agile Software Development,” The Agile Manifesto, February 2001, https://www.agilemanifesto.org, accessed July 7, 2016.
- Jack Hughes, “What Value Creation Will Look Like in the Future,” Harvard Business Review, May 17, 2013, https://hbr.org/2013/05/what-value-creation-will-look-like-in-the-future, accessed July 15, 2016.