Our opportunity to talk with Beth Tuttle, former President and CEO of DataArts (now known as SMU DataArts) was an interesting intersection of our work with our grant writing clients at DH Leonard Consulting and our Agile capacity building activities through Agile in Nonprofits. We have had numerous clients that are arts organizations over the years, and as could then be expected, numerous clients that have had to utilize the Cultural Data Profile as part of their grant application work. When we had the opportunity to talk with Beth, one of the things we were so excited to learn about was how the Agile and Scrum learnings from one project spread within the organization.
Can you tell us a little more about yourself and what inspired you to write the article, “DataArts: Becoming the Agile Nonprofit”?
My background has been in nonprofit management almost my whole career. I’ve run a consultancy that has worked with national and local organizations in the Arts & Culture sector. Today I run a coaching and consulting company. I work with Executive leaders and coach them on leadership and how they think about their organizations.
I was inspired to write the article because my team and I wanted to share the powerful positive impacts we were experiencing from taking on a new way of thinking and working within a very complex mission driven organization. We were living a journey that began with Agile as a technology driven approach and it ultimately became a core organizational philosophy and a way of life for us. It taught us how to be more responsive and relevant, efficient and effective, and committed to the set of diverse customers and stakeholders that we were serving. It gave birth to a more flexible and empowered organization. We want to educate and inspire other nonprofits, public and private grantmakers who all work within this system to come on the journey with us.
Why did DataArts begin an Agile journey?
Beth: I joined Data Arts in 2013 when I became its first President and CEO. My charge was to take the Cultural Data Profile (CDP) national. The CDP is an online financial reporting application that was being used by tens of thousands of grant seekers and hundreds of grantmakers as an essential part of the grant making process. It allowed grantmakers to collect standardized financial and operational data that was then used to inform funding decisions, marketing and management strategies by the organizations themselves, and then was really a driver for local and national field research.
We conducted user research and ran a comprehensive systems assessment of the CDP. The assessment was necessary to help identify if the current system was robust enough to handle a larger volume of users. Through our user research, we learned that the CDP was very useful for the grant writers who were paying the bills but it was really hard for the grant seekers who were required to use it. It was important to optimize the system because without grant seeker data there was no product for the grant writers to use.
There were so many factors that led us in an Agile direction. We left a million dollar foundation home and became a small scrappy nonprofit which required a huge mental and financial shift. We had to become efficient and operate in a lean manner because we couldn’t afford wasteful processes that a larger foundation may be able to afford. Rebuilding the platform required capital from significant sources. We had to keep the current CDP system running while determining the needs of the grant seeker and releasing new user-friendly functionality.
We began working with an application developer based out of Pennsylvania, called the Kyle David group. They introduced our non-tech team to Agile, Scrum, and a Sprint approach. That is how we got started redesigning and rebuilding the platform. That is also how we adopted an Agile best practice of listening and being responsive to our core users so that we could build a product that best met our user’s needs.
How did the Agile lessons DataArts learned with the Cultural Data Profile, influence the way the rest of the organization approached work?
To this day DataArts’ agility is an ongoing story. If you go on the DataArts website you will see that they are continually soliciting feedback from the community on the CDP to determine what functionality may be necessary to have included in future releases. We made a commitment to be customer focused and data informed so that we could be sure that we were actually providing value to our end users. We released early and often so that we could solicit feedback and improve our products and services.
We became more open to change and less wed to a plan. We used Sprints and focus teams to examine our internal processes for customer service, financial management, and invoicing in order to determine potential improvement opportunities. Our staff began to self-organize into small teams to streamline the process. Through this approach, our staff learned that they could continually be engaged in meaningful creative work in relation to their jobs.
We read in your article that DataArts encountered difficulties filling key technology positions and that staff members stepped out of traditional roles to bring their deep knowledge of the CDP and arts management to software development. Can you tell us more about that?
We encountered difficulties in filling key technology positions which is a common challenge for financially constrained nonprofits in highly competitive job markets. We were able to hire really talented coders and train up staff members who were originally in a customer service role and were box office managers, playwrights, and ballet dancers. They became Product Owners and gathered requirements, developed stories, and several of them went on to fill Product Management roles. As our non-tech staff developed technology skills we were able to successfully fill our skill gaps internally.
How can nonprofits get started adopting Agile Principles and Practices today?
The fundamental piece is a commitment to the customer’s voice. Know the customer you are there to serve: the beneficiary, customer, or stakeholder. Listen to their voice and find ways to be in deep interaction with them. Whether you are developing a product offering or a service, the goal is to invite them in a genuine way to help inform that development on the front end.
Be willing to test your product or service in an iterative way. Put your product or service out in chunks and solicit feedback. Every time you get feedback you are building a relationship that bonds your beneficiary, customer, or stakeholder to your organization more.
Give room to your employees to do creative work and own these products. Form small teams so that they can work together, co-create together, and learn from each other.
You can read Beth’s original article here: https://www.giarts.org/article/dataarts-becoming-agile-nonprofit
You can also watch the entire interview here: