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Annie Rhodes on the Evolution of the Nonprofit Sector and Digital Transformation

Annie Rhodes, Lecturer in the M.S. in Nonprofit Management program at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, has worked at the unique intersection of technology and social good throughout her career. From her work in the philanthropic space at the Ford Foundation, to her nonprofit consulting at Blackbaud, Rhodes has a rich professional background as an advocate for transformation and growth. She teaches the graduate students in her Data Analytics/Metrics in the Nonprofit Sector course the need for data-driven decision-making that allows organizations to respond dynamically to different situations.

Here, Rhodes discusses the transformation of the nonprofit sector, the challenges it currently faces in the midst of the ongoing world and national crisis, as well as key takeaways from her class that she hopes students will bring to their professional environments. 

How has technology transformed the nonprofit sector over the years?

Today, technology and the data flowing through it are essential to nonprofits in understanding and improving organizational efficiency, advancing mission delivery, accelerating impact and inspiring innovation, all while engaging and inspiring broad communities of stakeholders. Technology has empowered nonprofits to deepen their connections with the people and communities they support, as well as volunteers, staff, partners, board and other key stakeholders. Increasingly, technology is enabling nonprofit organizations to expand their reach, to respond to urgent community needs, and to coordinate broad engagement and advocacy. As more organizations emphasize outcome optimization, they are using technology to better understand what is working, what is not, and what to do next across their operations and networks to best support collective community impact in new and substantial ways. 

What are the key highlights in your career journey that brought you to where you are today?

When I think about my career journey, I always reminisce about the mentors who took a chance on me, who answered my questions about how things worked in philanthropy, who let me shadow them, and who encouraged me to keep striving toward the “why” in grantmaking. They were the ones who, during my time in grants management at the Ford Foundation, helped spark my passion for understanding the impact of each grant. After I left the Ford Foundation, I joined a philanthropic technology company called MicroEdge, owned by Vista Equity Partners and later acquired by Blackbaud to lead their product management efforts for their grantmaking technology solution. It was there that I spent a lot of time researching the broader philanthropic space and began to capture and share best practices that help numerous foundations to better understand the measurable outcomes and impact of their giving. After Blackbaud, I went back to the Vista Equity Partners portfolio to join Social Solutions, a company that provides nonprofits and government agencies with case management and outcomes-reporting technology that empowers program effectiveness and impact acceleration. 

What are some ways your students can apply the knowledge gained from class to real-life industry experiences?

As current and future nonprofit leaders, board members and/or volunteers, the goal of the Data Analytics & Metrics in the Nonprofit Sector class is to help students prioritize data-driven decision-making and become data champions for their organizations. Being a data champion means advocating for your organization to develop a data mindset. As a leader, you will need to rely on your team members’ experiences; however, data and analytics will help you understand what’s on track and which areas need help, as well as provide you with direction across your organization’s operations. Our class lays the groundwork for helping emerging leaders understand the types of data nonprofits need and what data is available across the sector to help drive decisions that lead to improved outcomes. Students in our class have opportunities to analyze real-life examples of nonprofit data, giving them a practical learning experience that they can take into their nonprofit careers.  

What are the challenges you think the sector faces today?

The nonprofit sector is in the midst of an incredibly challenging moment. Critical needs for services are continuing to increase while the funds for those services are being exhausted at the nonprofit, state, and local government levels. Nonprofit organizations that work with the arts, culture, and humanities; environmental groups; religious groups; educational institutions;, and so on are facing unforeseen and unimagined obstacles.  They have to reach their communities in new and alternative ways and to find the revenue to do that while remaining in business going into 2021. The unfortunate reality is that some organizations will not survive this difficult time, while others are leaning on partnerships or merging with other organizations to leverage resources to serve their communities. The nonprofits that are positioned to persevere are prioritizing agility and creativity and already have data strategies, technology solutions, and disaster recovery plans in place to guide them through uncertainty.     

How has the pandemic transformed the nonprofit sector and what do you think it will look like a few years from now?

The nonprofit sector has been transforming for some time; however, the combination of the ongoing economic and public health impacts of the pandemic, the polarizing election, and the cries to eradicate racism have created the need for the nonprofit sector to accelerate its transformation. Nonprofit leaders are reflecting on their organizations’ accountability and ability to play a role in helping our country not only recover, but reimagine a better future. The nonprofit sector is no longer just composed of nonprofits—it is a leading partner working collaboratively with government agencies, the private sector, social good organizations, impact investors, supply chains, and more at the local, national and international levels. Organizations across the sector are evolving to become more data-driven in terms of where to focus their time and resources, to better understand what success looks like, and to use the data to guide them in driving greater impact. Nonprofit organizations in the coming years will continue to transform their strategies and operations, prioritizing more diverse revenue streams that are inclusive of some level of goods and services sold—especially when it comes to technology and data. 

 

Learn more about the M.S. in Nonprofit Management.