Chief Research and Data Officer at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), Cara Giacomini, shares her insights on new beginnings, how the use of data and analytics is changing the industry, and why stepping outside your comfort zone is a good thing.
What about the opportunity to be CASE’s Chief Research and Data Officer was appealing to you?
That’s an interesting question – the initial conversation happened before the pandemic, so I was more willing to consider new opportunities. I was not looking and was impressed with Lindauer for finding me. At first, I looked at all the reasons it wouldn’t fit me, but then I shifted my thinking. There was nothing in the description that made me think I didn’t know how to do it. I read the description and said, “I have the right background just not all of it in advancement.” I had been preparing myself for an eventual Chief Data Officer role as part of a longer-term plan so when I got the call, I had to explore it. When you are clear on where you are headed, sometimes the opportunity shows up before you are looking for it.
What got you to “yes” for this job?
Six months after that first call with Lindauer, we were in the middle of the pandemic and I was asking myself, “Am I crazy for considering a change?” In the interviews I had with the leadership team, Ron (Mattocks) and Sue (Cunningham), I asked myself if I thought I could trust them to make hard decisions during challenging times. Ron and Sue were very transparent in our conversations. I was faced with working with a team I didn’t know when I would meet. I met the executive leadership team via Zoom and asked people how the team works together, what role data had played previously, what they most wanted from someone coming into this role, and how they solved problems together. It was important to me to hear these things. At the end of the day, everything lined up so that the move to CASE was possible in these times. And I still haven’t met anyone in person!
You have been in this role for several months in very unique times – what stands out to you?
What I have realized, and this may be the case for others, is that I feel like every three weeks, I understand my job and then I say “No, that was wrong, this is my job.” My understanding of the job keeps changing, partially because the job itself is changing. At the start, I had to focus on the most pressing pain points. I tried to understand what everyone was working on and how I could ease the burdens. How do we grow and move in the pandemic? As I have settled into the job, my mindset is that we have to adapt and come out stronger. Recognizing that I need to adapt has helped me a lot.
How have you forged relationships with other leaders in the organization given that you are remote and that you are new to the executive team?
Interesting you ask about that – it happened more organically than I anticipated. I have had social chats with people and that has helped but it is more that we have had to make big decisions as a team. When faced with that, you start to engage and trust and grapple with the pieces and follow up when you need to. I am a big fan of jumping into the pressing pieces and not being afraid to speak up. I have a new perspective so jumping into the work has been the biggest connector.
CASE also has a buddy program, and I am partnered with the CFO. She was assigned to me and we meet once a month. We do this at all levels of the organization. Our meetings are not structured, we check-in and talk about how it is going. I can ask questions about different things and it has been nice to have that dedicated space.
One of my adjustments from the University of Washington has been the difference from a big institution to a smaller leaner organization. Processes around things are less cumbersome, but they are also less formalized. I find myself introducing more formal project management practices than is the norm, but also looking for the right balance.
What are you most excited about in your role as Chief Research and Data Officer?
As I look forward, I have a strong belief in the organization and in the process. I know data are vital to what we do. We need to understand so much more about the populations we are serving and what we are doing. This work is a key piece to what CASE offers our members. There is the belief the data and research we are providing has growing importance to the organization in terms of member engagement. We don’t have as much reach yet as the more established pillars of CASE, but everyone sees our work as vital to the work we are doing. If higher education and advancement professionals are continuing to adapt and meet the changing needs of the people they serve, we’ll need more data. I see advancement looking beyond fundraising data to consider more data on engaging with alumni and marketing and communication efforts. This is about completing the story. It is exciting to see the growing appetite for that. People are trying new things and changing. As we go into new areas, we will not get it right out of the gates and that is where data will help inform what organizations do next.
I see that happening already – I am seeing people start to count not just how many donors they have as part of campaign measures, but how many alumni engaged with activities. That is an important new direction. I see people using social media ambassadors, creating more volunteer opportunities; tracking what they ask people to do. People are trying new things and it is exciting to see.
Are you seeing the role of data and analytics in education change? If so, how?
Data points are shifting away from being purely celebratory. There is history in advancement of big fundraising numbers. Let’s count as many donors as possible, let’s count this gift in as many categories as possible, things like that. I am seeing a shift away from counting the flashy number only. People are now looking to the numbers to see where there might be challenges. Somewhat of a “look under the hood and see some of the messiness” approach. It can be scary to do that, but organizations are realizing when they see a concerning trend, they need to tell a more complete story. Data and analytics help tell that story. It is helpful to pare it down to see where there is a trend in the patterns. Take out a few big gifts – ask the hard questions. Are we reaching the people we want to be reaching? Those questions are being asked more and more and looking at alumni engagement data is good for this. I think people want to be sure we are safeguarding our future – if you see patterns that you aren’t engaging people or recent alums aren’t responding, you have to worry about what this means for the long term. It is scary and hard but necessary. Having data to drive your strategy is much better than just having a “hunch.” Leaders want to anticipate and prepare and maintain the tremendous success advancement has had. The longer-term trajectory is unclear, so people are more willing to try new things.
We have a new generation of people who are giving in different ways, for different reasons, with different motivations, and organizations must understand that. There is also a different generation of professionals entering advancement with a keener awareness of issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Who are we engaging? Are we reaching out to the population that reflects the demographics of our constituents in ways that are inclusive? Again, data points are the tool that helps move this from an idea to actual practice.
What trends are you seeing with the use of data and analytics?
This is a space where I am gaining familiarity with what is happening. We are working on releasing the first global reporting standards which provide a consistent way to measure advancement activity across the globe. We will have regional supplements so we can say this matters in the US, this matters in the UK, in Singapore, etc. There are pieces that can span universally and there are nuances specific to regions. We are actively working to establish meaningful global benchmarks in alumni engagement, fundraising, campaign tracking, and marketing/communications. We recognize there is a difference in the maturity of advancement shops. The prevalence of fundraising is more US-focused because we haven’t had the same type of government support for education that you see in other countries. There is more of an emphasis on engagement vs. giving in many regions.
CASE serves a wide variety of institutions. Do you think there are learnings that could be useful across other segments of the nonprofit sector?
I do think a lot of questions of how you serve your community – members or alumni or constituents or however your field is connecting – transfer across all sectors. Shifting behavior and trends in giving and donor engagement impact the entire nonprofit sector. There is a shift to building a data-driven culture that uses numbers to shape strategy and that isn’t exclusive to education. As a profession, we are getting better at that and as we move towards more data and analytics to drive strategy and decisions, that will extend beyond the education sector.
AI, data integrity, and privacy concerns dominate headlines. Do you have thoughts to share from your long professional perspective?
This could be a topic of its own. The main thing is when people talk about data, analytics, AI, people jump to the flashy, sexy use of data where you can predict or prescribe the course of human action. To get to that level of manipulation or use of data takes so many steps that while people want to jump to that, you can’t take that leap. The first layer is infrastructure to count basic things, to understand what you are seeing, and to understand the trends. You have to develop your thinking before you get to asking a smart question that could be applied to predictive analytics. You start to understand what a donor looks like and might respond to based on data you have. You must gather that data first – and in order to do that, you must clearly identify the data you want. I often find myself talking to people who want to do this flashy thing but have to do the fundamentals first, collecting the data, improving on it. That can be a hard sell because it isn’t quick and easy. You can’t just implement machine learning and analytics. You have to invest time and resources and know what matters to you.
CASE is very strong on the ethics of how we count and shape what we do. You have to be transparent about how you collect and use data. Having thoughtful consent practices upfront, looking carefully at them, and approaching everything with an ethical lens are essential. CASE is firmly established in this area. We crafted the donor bill of rights and ethical principles of practice for fundraisers, alumni relations, and marketing and communications professionals. These are integrated into the CASE Global Reporting Standards and shape all of the work we do.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Relax, have more fun, take that trip – sorry, that is my pandemic response! When I was young someone told me that the job I was going to have when I graduated probably didn’t exist yet. That stuck with me and in hindsight, I feel my entire career has been that. The job that I have right now continues that trend. The opportunity to shape the role is thrilling to me. Recognizing that you are learning a series of skills that can apply to multiple opportunities is important. Don’t be afraid to learn something new. Every opportunity I have had has been because I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and entered a space as it was being defined. If I had to sum it up, my advice to my younger self would be “if you think you know what your next job will be and what it will look like, you are limiting yourself.”
Interviewed by Megan Abbett, Lindauer Senior Consultant.