For many in the nonprofit world, 2017 kicked off with a bang. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) continues to rake in record donations, including from tech giants, as many look for ways to push back against some of President Trump's more controversial policies. Likewise, Planned Parenthood is currently gearing up to do battle against political foes seeking to curb its funding. But it isn't just the biggest, best-known organizations long stationed in the political crosshairs that are evolving these days, and activism isn't the only reason why.
As community needs change, nonprofits at every level of the sector are searching for better ways to deliver their services. Like every business, nonprofits are also seeking opportunities for scale and efficiency. They, too, are often walking a fine line between the pressures of meeting today’s goals and planning for the future. To do all this, nonprofits will have to invest in both the people and technologies they'll need to fulfill their missions in the future—as many already are. These are three of the top jobs nonprofits will need to fill as that transition unfolds.
Culture, especially in small organizations where staff are regularly connecting with community members, can make or break a nonprofit, just as it can a corporation. It influences public perception, interest in events and programs, and even drive donors to consider investing in the work. Culture also contributes to employee satisfaction, retention, and productivity levels. Other industries have already started adopting chief culture officers (CCOs), and many nonprofits are now following suit.
A CCO's job in the nonprofit world includes managing the organization's relationship with the community, implementing wellness and health initiatives, and drawing up policies for avoiding burnout. They're usually also the person in charge of overseeing hiring and staffing decisions, particularly those that lead to an inclusive and equitable workplace.
Jake Porway, executive director of DataKind, which finds data scientists to do social impact work, says the organization hired a head of culture, "not just because it makes people feel great working here (though it does), but because our mission relies on it." Even more so than businesses, nonprofits like DataKind feel the imperative to walk the walk when it comes to their values.
"We work hard to make sure we're actually living into our values of humility, transparency, expertise, mindfulness, approachability, and equity," says Porway. That's all part of the CCO's job description, as is responsibility for the organization's diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. The more that nonprofits double down on these issues, the more growth opportunities there will be for culture officers to take charge of them.
For nonprofits, just like companies and government agencies, data holds the potential for incredible learning and knowledge. Nonprofits also need metrics on how their programs and services are performing. They need to keep track of how well their clients are accessing those benefits, plus the contextual information about locations, frequency of use, and even staff time associated with delivering them. Armed with better data, nonprofits can stay efficient and effective, even with limited resources. To do that, they need data experts.
This is an idea the sector has already embraced in theory. But for many nonprofits, the challenge in the months and years ahead is putting it into practice. So far, many simply haven't had the time or skills on staff to analyze data for the lessons that may be hidden there. More and more, though, nonprofits are clearing space in their budgets to change that. They're finding that there's no substitute for in-house expertise. Full-time data science employees can help nonprofits identify trends to fine-tune their programming and plug holes in delivery services—all in close to real-time.
At the intersection of culture and data is user experience. This isn’t solely about making your website better, either (though it certainly includes that!). For nonprofits, full user experience design and evaluation spans the on- and offline processes that clients work through in order to make use of an organization's programs and services. So nonprofits are investing more in hiring in-house user experience experts to help them get that right.
Many nonprofits are used to asking community members and beneficiaries to weigh in with feedback on what they do and how well they're doing it. Until recently, much of that data gather has been tacked on to other job descriptions in the sector. Very few organizations have put someone with user-experience design skills in charge of that process. But many are now realizing that well-intentioned feedback gathering isn’t always enough to make the improvements that matter most—especially when it can mean the difference between serving hundreds or thousands of people in need.
"Within any organization, the people who live and breathe the work on a daily basis tend to become steeped in the organization’s language, practices, and nuances," says Mollie Ruskin, who worked on the U.S. Digital Service’s efforts with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "So often, we forge ahead doing things the way we’ve been doing or seen others do for ages, without pausing to assess how the people in our community are able to use or engage with what we’re doing." That's where UX designers are beginning to make a difference.
"User experience design encourages a deep engagement with how people respond to the tools you’re putting in front of them, how they behave, what’s working and what’s missing," says Ruskin. As nonprofits come to see the value in that, they're upping their staffing investments. "Something as simple as a frustrating sign-up form or a confusing phone tree," she adds, "can keep people from becoming a leader in your network."
Nonprofits are starting to recognize the value of these roles, and many have even started looking for someone with experience or skills in one of these areas from the corporate world to join the board or lead a pro bono project. That means the need for culture, data analysis, and user experience expertise is only poised to grow in the nonprofit world. As many people start to think anew about the purpose of their work and whether it squares with their values, they may find their talents needed at organizations where they wouldn't have even five years ago.