Advancing the Field of Data Analytics: A Q&A With John Gough, University of Texas at Austin

Michael Pawlus, Connections editorial committee member, recently met with John Gough, senior executive director for advancement data operations and strategy at The University of Texas at Austin, to discuss his perspectives on data analytics within fundraising. 

John has been at the forefront of pursuing ambitious analytics projects from his first days in this field and has steadily taken on more senior leadership roles throughout his career, helping to promote the value of data analytics and ensure it is a key component of overall fundraising strategy. In addition, he has continued to give back to the data analytics community by presenting at numerous conferences, and seeks out and designs new avenues for industry-wide collaboration and knowledge sharing. 

Michael Pawlus: Can you tell us about the path to your current role? 

John Gough: The path to my current role began when I enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC) in Library and Information Science. I had previously earned advanced degrees in French and French literature and joined the program, thinking I would be an archivist or special collections librarian. While there, I was introduced to the field of data curation and became fascinated with the challenges associated with preserving and accessing legacy digital mediums. In my pursuit of that specialization I was introduced to programming languages, databases and informatics. 

Upon graduation, a fellow School of Information Sciences alum signaled that there was an open position for an analyst in the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement at UIUC. I applied and was offered the job. I owe a lot to that position and to the many mentors I encountered while working in that office. I was fortunate to have been exposed to the entire advancement operation and given the opportunity to work on projects for major and principal gifts, annual giving, marketing and communications, talent acquisition and development, stewardship, and foundation relations. This accelerated my exposure to advancement and allowed me to learn the business quickly. 

Three years ago, I was recruited to the University of Texas at Austin to spearhead the optimization of the reporting team and to create an analytics program. I’ve had the privilege of working with talented analysts to build a reporting and analytics solution. From there, I was just recently promoted to the role of senior executive director for advancement data operations, which has allowed me to take leadership of the gift processing and data quality teams, as well as the continued leadership of the reporting and analytics team. 

MP: What was it about data analytics that made you want to pursue this part of the profession further? 

JG: What I enjoy about analytics is the variety of the work. The complex relationships that exist between donors, gift officers, institutions and initiatives offer a wellspring of opportunity for the curious mind to both ask and answer questions. Philanthropy is a behavior driven by emotion. Donors give because they feel something — be it obligation, loyalty, empathy, altruism, pride, hubris or any other countless emotions. It is a distinctly human activity which is fascinating to observe and to attempt to predict and explain. In short, for me it’s a field that engages my intellect and allows me to answer questions that have real impact in furthering worthwhile causes. 

MP: What are some of your guiding principles or your philosophy regarding data analytics? What are some key components that you feel make data analytics the most effective and impactful in this space?

JG: I often refer to the work that we do as ephemeral; we are tasked with answering today’s questions using today’s available tools and approaches. Institutions, individuals, initiatives and motivations are constantly changing and evolving. As professionals in this space, our task is to develop the skill sets that make us useful in answering the questions of today and to prepare ourselves to answer the probable questions of tomorrow. This requires a highly developed sense of curiosity and adaptability, and necessitates life-long learning. It also requires that we are connected to leadership and their priorities so that we understand the pertinent questions of the day. 

For analytics to succeed it must be an institutional priority. An analyst can only answer questions as well as they have access to the necessary data. This requires the development of integrated information systems, strategic deployment of taxonomies and coding structures, and establishing feedback loops that track engagement across the institution and throughout the donor cycle. It requires clean data entry, accurate relationship tracking, master data management planning driven by best practices, and consistent policies and strategies that engender trends sufficient and stable enough to be analyzed. Where these are in place, data analytics is at its most effective. 

MP: What are some of the lessons that you have learned going from a practitioner to a manager? What have been some of the benefits and challenges of expanding your team to include data quality and gift processing? 

JG: I’ve had the unique experience of being a managing practitioner for the last several years. It hasn’t been until recently that my responsibilities as a manager have pulled me completely from the bench. Having a foot in both worlds can be a challenge, as often the immediacy of projects and analyses can get in the way of management duties. I’ve learned that sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. Providing for your team’s professional development takes time and resources but is well worth the investment. Making space to think strategically is critical. It is so easy to be penny wise and pound foolish — developing short-term deliverables while missing opportunities to develop long-term solutions. I’ve learned that envisioning an ideal state and designing a roadmap to get there requires intentionality. Finally, a lesson personal to me has been to embrace my fear of missing out, delegating work and being willing to coach and cheer from the sidelines. 

The benefits of expanding my portfolio to include data quality and gift processing were immediately apparent. These are areas that perform complementary work and which offer great opportunities for collaborative synergy. The first challenge for me has been getting in front of the learning curve. As an analyst I was well aware of the data structures as they existed in the database, but now having the opportunity to intimately understand and dissect the processes and workflows that produced that data has been a great learning experience.  

MP: What are some current projects that you are the most excited about at the moment? 

JG: One of the projects we’re currently most excited about is the Texas Advancement Analytics Symposium (TAAS). We have an amazing lineup of speakers covering topics that address our theme: “Advancement Analytics — The Current State and Future Opportunities.” We’ve developed a program that has a balanced mix of both theory and practice and are expecting an event marked by discourse and collaborative thinking. I’m also proud to share that a number of my fellow Apra members served on the selection committee, helping to keep the program tuned in to what this community wants to learn more of in the realm of data analytics. TAAS 2020 will be held in two online sessions from June 15th-16th, with the proceedings published in the inaugural “Journal of Advancement Analytics” in early 2021. 

MP: What made you decide to create this symposium? 

JG: TAAS was conceived in early 2019 during a lunch conversation between myself, my TAAS co-chair and assistant vice president for advancement services, Juan Garcia, and our assistant vice president for talent development, Walt Edwards. As we discussed then-current offerings in the professional development space, we identified a potential unmet need for a venue to promote advanced critical thinking in the area of fundraising analytics in a way that a broad-based, membership-driven organization might find difficult. We did an initial survey of the industry later that year and found that there was an appetite for what we were proposing — which was a grass-roots symposium to generate peer reviewed content in a bid to advance the field. 

MP: Why is this an exciting time to be invested in data analytics? 

JG: We work in a period when data analytics is coming of age; its value has been demonstrated, we have the data and systems required to perform it to scale, and we have the talent necessary to carry it out. Why this is exciting varies from practitioner to practitioner, but for me, the challenge of asking and answering questions never gets old.

Over the course of the last 24 months we have built nearly 30 machine learning models to answer specific business questions within TEXAS Development. Each model answers a question: Who is likely to give to our college of engineering? Who is likely to make a major gift in the next one to five years? Who is likely to make a planned gift? We have gained valuable insights about the attributes of our prospects, the donor/gift officer relationship, and steps we can take to be a more efficient organization. However, we have a lot yet to do. Until we’ve arrived at a way to prescriptively achieve the right gift-officer/donor pairing, for the right gift, at the right time, and at the right amount, our work isn’t done. I, for one, am excited about what the future holds!

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