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What Does It Take to Be a Data Champion?

4Q4 Podcast, Interviews

Rachel Rank of UK-based 360Giving introduces a new kind of "data expedition" for professionals looking to connect with their work.

Digital Impact 4Q4 Podcast: Rachel Rank on the Data Champions Initiative


00:00 CHRIS DELATORRE: This is Digital Impact 4Q4. I’m Chris Delatorre. Today’s four questions are for Rachel Rank, CEO of 360Giving. In October, the organization expanded its Data Champions initiative to all foundations in the UK. It’s plan, to spread good data practice through a network of individuals who are supporting their foundations to be “data-informed.”

Rachel, we’ve been hearing a lot about “using data to make the most impact.” There’s no universal definition of “impact” in the social sector—the word tends to take on different meanings for different organizations. You’ve described Data Champions as people who are positively affecting how data is used to support decision making within their organizations. What do “impact” and “decision making” mean to a Data Champion?

00:58 RACHEL RANK: That’s a big question, Chris. Thanks for asking it. The way we view it here at 360Giving is there are people in organizations that are already working with information and data and are interested in this work. And we want to help them become ambassadors for their organization and the work they’re doing and in turn become champions for our work and increasing the use of data across the UK philanthropic sector. So for these people, impact probably means for them, doing their work better, understanding better what their funding, how they’re taking funding decisions, if that’s a truly fair process, and how they make those decisions is data informed and helping them do the work they’re already doing better, but to be able to talk about that more, in a more informed way with their colleagues. So it’s building on interest and experiences they’re already having but helping them do that in a more explicit way.

“[Even] sophisticated data users… sometimes struggle to make the link from the work they’re doing to the broader challenges a grant-making organization is facing.”

02:00 CHRIS DELATORRE: Peer learning and open data seem to go hand in hand, and the importance of creating spaces for individuals across organizations to connect is really coming into focus for the social sector. Easier said than done, right? You mention in the report how grant managers often develop their data skills on the job. Two parts to this question. First, if you had to profile a data practitioner, what characteristics might emerge? And second, as practitioners learn more about who they are and what they do—as they “come into their own,” if you will—how will this initiative make it easier for them to connect?

02:40 RACHEL RANK: How would I profile a data practitioner? So their characteristics would be someone who’s already fairly competent working with data, is using raw data in their work, and perhaps is exploring new areas and fields that they’re interested in, but may not be necessarily showing that more broadly outside their organization. In some cases they might be but in many cases they may be responding to very specific questions or problems that their grant-making organization is facing. And using data both qualitative and quantitative information to help answer those questions.

There are often people who are quite sophisticated data users but they may sometimes struggle to make the link from the work that they’re doing to the broader challenges that a grant-making organization is facing. So, the classic issues of we’re being asked to provide more funding and we’ve got funding to give away, we’re thinking about reviewing our strategy and maybe shifting to a new sector or place, how do we go about doing that, is bringing those practitioners into those perhaps some of those bigger picture questions that’s something we’re really keen to do.

The second part of the question—learning more about who they are and what they do as they come into their own—this is where the Data Champions program links in because often we find that there are people who might not think of themselves as a data practitioner and they may not self-identify that it’s pointed out to them but actually they’re using information and data in lots of different ways in their work but it may not be perhaps as strategic as we’d want it to be, or it may be that they’re just someone who’s very interested in this work and does it in the sidelines of their day job. It may be that they have the word data analyst in their job title and they’re not doing day to day grant-making work.

“I think of it as an exploration. You’re going on an expedition up a mountain, think of it like that.”

So, it’s how do we join the dots in those different kinds of characteristics and different kinds of people to make them realize there are lots of commonalities in the work that they’re doing and the issues they’re facing. And it is something around perhaps giving people confidence in using raw data that they may not be doing at the moment but they’re interested in pursuing more and bringing people together who are doing that to people who aren’t and how they can learn from each other and bounce ideas off of each other. And that’s where the fun starts where people can share those ideas and learning and we’re essentially just providing a space to do that. It’s a pretty simple idea. They come with all the knowledge, skills, and experience and the shared questions and challenges and we just create a space for them to explore that in more detail and look at how we can do that through kind of initial steps to build up to the bigger picture.

05:21 CHRIS DELATORRE: One lesson you learned from the pilot is that grant-makers are ready to take on the big challenges. They want to be able to assess and address the needs of the communities they serve; and they like being challenged to think differently about how they use data. On a separate but related note, you announced that you’ll be stepping down as CEO after 4+ years with 360Giving. In the announcement, you expressed a firm belief that founding CEOs “shouldn’t hang around too long and its important to make space for new energy and ideas.” What unique opportunities do organizations have when leadership changes to address these challenges?

06:00 RACHEL RANK: That’s a really great question. And I’ve been amazed, actually, by the interest I’ve received in what I thought was a fairly obvious point that founding CEO shouldn’t hang around for too long, but lots of people have asked me about that and said they really value me raising that as something that should be considered. For me it’s a no brainer. I think I’ve done some great work at 360Giving and I bring a certain set of interests and skills and a new person will also bring a certain set of interest and skills. And change is a good thing in general. I think four and a half years is a good length of time to really embed some strategy ideas and processes and systems here at 360Giving, but it’s time for someone to come in with some new thinking and help the organization understand itself better.

I expect the new CEO will ask some basic questions, you know, who do we think we are, who are our priority targets, what information are we collecting about them, what data do we have ourselves on that, and how do we measure our own progress? And I think that leaders should be able to get that key information pretty quickly. So, the team will work with them to perhaps answer some of those questions. Many of which might be in my head and I think there’s something about embedding that into the organization more broadly and different people bring different questions and different ideas. And I think being asked that is important and taking an organization on to the next stage also I think is really important and I want fresh thinking and ideas needed for that. I think of myself as having helped birth 360Giving and taken it up to its toddler years and someone now needs to take it to its teenage years and that can be sometimes quite a different set of skills. And I do think that we as an organization could use our own data better as well and really welcome some fresh ideas and thinking on that.

I think more broadly, to answer your question about organizations when leadership changes, I think a challenge is that actually lots of leaders of philanthropic organizations here in the UK aren’t that data savvy. They would admit that themselves. They’re interested in how they can use data more. We’ve certainly had a very warm welcome from the sector here at 360Giving. I think it’s fair to say when I started out back in 2015, we weren’t sure this idea would fly, which funders share their data in this open comparable way. We’ve had a resounding yes to that. We’ve got over 30 billion pounds of data being shared with new data being added all the time. So we’ve had a really warm welcome. And when I speak to leaders in grant-making organizations, they totally get the idea and they’re interested in sharing the data. But they then sometimes struggle to understand how they could use this data themselves. They may not be using it in a way that it’s as strategic as possible.

I think sometimes they buy in that support to help their organization think that through and perhaps aren’t as competent as they might be about using data. So we’re going to help them on that journey as well. Our work doesn’t stop. We’re just getting them to open up the data. It’s also using it for better informed decision making and learning. So it’s a challenge for us how to work with a comparatively low tech sector and help those leaders of those organizations become more data informed and feel confident about having those conversations publicly.

09:28 CHRIS DELATORRE: Tracey Gyateng at DataKind UK tweeted this from the ODI Summit in November:

Love this from @rachelrank on building the open data ecosystem- show what you’re doing & the impact it makes & make others feel left out if they don’t join in! This is key on how to build pioneers/ data champions & change the culture on how orgs view data.

Assuming the idea here isn’t to shame people for not doing more, this is really about conveying to the sector the importance—the urgency—of learning how to take better ownership of data – and incentivizing that. You started with a small cohort of community foundations and now you’re opening it up to other foundations, offering to run what you call “data expeditions” with these organizations. What does one of these expeditions look like and how can data practitioners listening in learn more?

10:26 RACHEL RANK: OK. So we’ve stolen this idea, so I can’t take the credit for it so I should be upfront about that right now. Data expedition is a model that was developed by the Open Knowledge Foundation and is also used by DataKind. And it’s really, I think of it as an exploration. You’re going on an expedition up a mountain, think of it like that. So it’s a series of workshops. We run them as a series of three workshops where you start by looking at what shared questions you want to answer. So, you go on a quest for questions for half a day with a group of like-minded organizations. So, it could be another group of funders supporting the same region or sector or it could be a group of people across a large organization where you’ve got several different departments. And you want to identify some shared challenges and questions and really hone in on some of those questions on which ones can be answered using data. Because of course not all questions can be answered using data so it’s really being specific about what you want to know and how can we help you answer it.

“They’re not expected to be experts or analysts, and anyone can participate.”

And in the second workshop is a full day where you look at that data, that information that’s available and explore how you might use some facts to help answer those questions. And that’s where the really big effort comes in and we always bring in some data experts too and some analysts to help work with the expedition team on that. And then workshop three is another half-day session where we do some storytelling with that data. So actually, what have we learned, you know, exploring what have we learned with those questions in the data expedition day and the information that was available, what stories can we tell, what answers do we know. And it can be often that we find that we’re raising more questions than answers.

So as I’m sure you know, Chris, there’s no perfect world of data out there that exists, sadly, so let’s not pretend otherwise. So what is it we learned from asking and finding and verifying and feeding that data, what have we learned from that, how can we present it in different ways, what other questions does it tell? And it’s really about creating a space to think about how you use data in your work, how you’d go about answering questions so people can then go away and rinse and repeat that exercise themselves in their own organizations.

We run these in partnership with grant-making groups. And as I said, we tend to bring in some analysts to help with the actual data works that they’re really targeted people who just are interested in answering questions with data. They’re not expected to be experts or analysts, and anyone can participate. And what we try to do is have a good mix of policymakers, researchers, you know, doers and thinkers across the group, small groups of say 10 to 12 people. And we’re always looking to run more of these because that’s crucial learning for us as well, what is it that people want to learn from opening up grant-making data. We need to check that what we’re doing is relevant and useful and if it’s not, why not, and have a nice conversation about that, otherwise why do I bother to go into work in the morning?

So, for us it’s great learning as well. And we’re always open to people who want to explore that with us. So you can find out more on our website Follow us on Twitter. We’re on @360Giving. You could also me, I’m on @RachelRank. Find out more on our website about how to contact us. And the model is very much up for grabs. We’ve used it, as I said other people have used it. And if you’re interested in learning more about running your own data expeditions, we’ve got heaps of learning that we can share with you, including what not to do if that helps. We’re very happy to hear from people who want to find out more about this on the Data Champions work we’re doing and we’re very open to partnering and learning with others. So please get in touch.

I should also mention that as part of the Data Champions program that we’re working with Dirk Slater on, and I’m sure he’ll be known to many of you who are listening, we’re developing a resource library where we want grant-makers to add resources on anything that they’re using to help support their work using data, so tools and platforms they use, stories of what they’re doing. We’re developing that over the course of 2020 in parallel with the Data Champions program. And if people want to find out more, they should contact Drink Slater of FabRiders or me here at 360Giving to find out more. We’d love to add resources to it as we go along.

14:57 CHRIS DELATORRE: Rachel Rank, CEO of 360Giving, thank you.

Digital Impact is a program of the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Follow this and other episodes at and on Twitter @dgtlimpact with #4Q4Data.