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Meet Jeff Williams, New Director of the Johnson Center’s Community Data and Research Lab

A Q&A with Tory Martin
Meet Jeff Williams, New Director of the Johnson Center’s Community Data and Research Lab
The Johnson Center is proud to announce that Jeff Williams has joined our team as director of the Community Data and Research Lab (CDRL). Tory Martin, director of communications and engagement, sat down with Jeff to learn a bit more about his professional background and vision for CDRL.

(The Johnson Center’s Community Research Institute became the Community Data and Research Lab in September 2019.)

Tory:  Jeff, welcome to the Johnson Center! Tell us a bit about yourself.

Jeff:  I’m honored to be here! I just arrived after a long career in public policy research for a private, nonpartisan consulting firm in Michigan. My background is in public policy research and large-scale implementation, especially in the areas of K–12 education, survey research and evaluation, and data analysis/information technology.

In my prior role, I was able to work on projects for many of Michigan’s nonprofits and foundations. I’ve also been part of the research team that completed the premiere economic benefits report on Michigan’s nonprofits for multiple editions. I am very excited to be able to focus on community research from a new perspective!

You’ve been on the job for a couple weeks now; can you tell us about how your vision and plans for CDRL are evolving?

I am working my way up the learning curve! My colleagues here at the Johnson Center — and especially within the CDRL team — have been wonderful.

The lab will continue to work with communities to gather, interpret, and display data for useful conversations — and I look forward to getting the team more engaged in some applied research about the philanthropic sector throughout Michigan. We have some very good ideas starting to bubble up as we plan the research agenda for the next year.

What role do you see the Community Data and Research Lab filling locally and across Michigan?

Too often, decision makers at every level — from an informal community conversation through the boardrooms of Michigan’s largest organizations — find themselves drowning in data. It’s the double-edged sword. Thanks to the Internet, vast amounts of data are now free… which is also a problem when you receive an unlimited amount of it back when you ask a question!

Where CDRL can excel is converting data to knowledge. That is, answering concrete, “so what?”, and “given this data, what action could you take?” type questions. It’s equal parts evaluation and applied research. It’s also equal parts analysis and communication, focused on communities and philanthropic organizations.

What do you see as some of the nonprofit sector’s most pressing data and technology needs? Is there an awareness that gaps exist?

There are two tiers to that question. At the most basic level, we know there is a gap for nonprofits and foundations in keeping up with the rapid technological changes in data analysis and equipment. The fabled “cloud computing” only works if you can connect to it at high-speeds and with a reliable computer. It’s about the internal infrastructure and equipment of an organization.

“[T]he gaps are really about getting more organizations, boards, donors, and volunteers able to use the best tools to most quickly digest and react to information.”

At a higher level, the gaps are really about getting more organizations, boards, donors, and volunteers able to use the best tools to most quickly digest and react to information. If data is free — meaning access isn’t a barrier — but my nonprofit can dig through it, find kernels of knowledge, and make a decision faster than a different organization, over time my nonprofit will thrive. The other nonprofit will struggle for donors, programs, and impact. If you are limited to Excel, you’re missing massive amounts of information that something like Tableau or Amazon QuickSight can provide.

Tell us about a trend in philanthropy that you find intriguing or inspiring. How about trends across the use of data and technology?

I am intellectually fascinated by the role of disrupting influencers in any industry. We’ve been talking about the Internet, so let’s make an analogy. Remember how the Internet was supposed to eliminate all travel agents from the relationship between a traveler and an airline or hotel? Everyone can skip the agent and just purchase directly! They did … right up to today, when most leisure reservations are booked through Expedia (or Trivago, or, or Travelocity …). Far from eliminating the travel agent, those websites in some key ways mimic a traditional travel agency. They also have very different features that only the Internet could provide, like making three-click vacation purchases from my living room after I price shop.

I see a similar disruption in relationships between donors and nonprofits. Just one example: In my professional lifetime, we’ve seen a migration of participation from United Way and the employer-centric campaign, toward a very distributed, one-on-one interaction made possible by the Internet generally (e.g., organizational websites, crowdfunding sites, and Donor Advised Funds). Donors are eager to move in this direction because the Internet makes distributing gifts or grants a three-click event from my living room through multiple pathways.

But a more direct relationship between individual donors and nonprofits — that is, without the intermediary step of a United Way (like a travel agency) — creates a new challenge. How does each donor discover, understand, and evaluate the effectiveness of each recipient organization?

“[N]ew giving pathways are here to stay, and I believe we are only in the earliest stages of disruption of ‘traditional’ charitable giving.”

Today, I argue the average website or DAF donor has less information about effective nonprofits than their local United Way or community foundation — but that may not be true in ten years. These new giving pathways are here to stay, and I believe we are only in the earliest stages of disruption of “traditional” charitable giving. And just like travel agencies morphed into something new, United Ways and community foundations are adapting themselves with sustained, focused effort, to serve their communities because they know their communities.

How does this position fit in with Grand Valley State University and serve students?

You simply cannot overstate the benefit of being able to ask research questions in a university environment. Every inch of a university campus is tailor-made for intellectual discovery and conversation. As the child of a faculty & staff member at a Michigan university — and alumnus of three different universities myself — I grew up in and around higher education, so it feels very good to be “home.” Having student assistants and graduate assistants in the office every day is invigorating, and a great way to stay current on research trends from them while sharing my prior professional experiences.

Kallie Bauer has served as the interim director of CDRL since August. What’s next for Kallie?

Kallie did an outstanding job keeping projects rolling at CDRL during the search for a new director. She’s a wealth of knowledge — not just about CDRL work, but also the work of the Johnson Center because she has been here more than ten years! I’m very excited for her new role in center-wide project management and coordination. From my prior life, I know and preach the benefits of rigorous project management, so I cannot wait for Kallie’s expertise to be shared throughout the Johnson Center’s research and professional development activities.

On a personal level, what nonprofits or social causes are closest to your heart?

Easy: arts, animals, and education. I’m proud to volunteer on the advisory council of the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts as well as the Board of Directors for Michigan Virtual. And through the Board of Directors and grant review committee of a local community foundation, I’m able to work on all three areas!

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Hobbies? Travel, near and far. Working on my last nine states domestically, and only have one continent left. And Netflix “auto-play next episode.” Does that count as a hobby, or is it a vice?

Learn more about Jeff Williams on his staff profile page, or email to connect directly.