Subscribe to our blog

Subscribe to Email Updates

Featured Post

Recent Posts

Transitioning into the nonprofit sector with Christa Stelzmuller

Christa Stelzmuller discusses her experience as a data architect at Myspace, the evolution of technology and data architecture, and her transition to the nonprofit sector as Chief Technology Officer at charity: water. 

 

 

 

In this episode of the RKD Group: Thinkers podcast, Christa emphasizes the importance of thoughtful data collection and governance and the long-term roadmap for data and technology at charity: water. 

She shares:  

  • The importance of thoughtful data collection and governance 
  • The long-term roadmap for data and technology at charity: water 
  • Influence of mentors and colleagues on career development
 

Show chapters 

  • 00:00 The MySpace Era and Tom's Influence 
  • 03:27 Transitioning to the Nonprofit Sector 
  • 07:33 Thoughtful Data Collection and Governance 
  • 14:29 Data Governance and Long-Term Roadmap at charity: water
     

Meet our guest 

 Christa Stelzmuller - 1200x627

 

Transcript 

Justin McCord  

Okay, Christa, I promised that we would have just, like, a chance just to jump right in the conversation. Ronnie's been itching to jump in and ask you something specific. 

  

Ronnie Richard 

I have a burning question. So, I was looking through your background, and you were the chief data architect at Myspace from 2006 to 2010. So I have to know, were you friends with Tom? 

  

Christa Stelzmuller 

Okay. Okay. Everyone was friends with Tom. But yes, Tom was someone that I knew personally, and he was deeply involved in the product. And so, we saw him every single day. He cared a lot about the users. 

  

Ronnie Richard  

Hehehehehe 

  

So, for some of our younger listeners, first off, Myspace was a social media platform back in the day before Facebook. It was the social media platform, and when you joined, you always started off with one friend, and that was Tom, Tom Anderson, who was the founder of  Myspace. So, I just wanted to lay that out there for those who aren't familiar. 

  

Justin McCord 

It was the social media platform. Yeah. 

  

Christa Stelzmuller  

That's it. 

  

Justin McCord 

Yeah. That's a ... 

  

Christa Stelzmuller  

It was a different time, for sure. It was a different time, but it was fun. That was a great moment. 

  

Justin McCord 

Yeah, I have to think that, although almost 20 years later, while technology itself has changed dramatically, there must be some roots in what was happening then that we're still using now and the way we think about technology applied to marketing and fundraising. 

  

Christa Stelzmuller  

Sure. I mean, I think the constant that has never changed is the data that underlies everything. Whether you were collecting a bunch of communications between folks, or people were uploading content and sharing things with each other, everything has always been rooted in how we can structure that information and share it back out to folks and use it in whatever way made sense. And so, yeah, and driving engagement, using that information to drive engagement, I feel like those things have been constant throughout many, many years, and we were using those techniques a long time ago, and I think they've just gotten better over the years. 

  

Justin McCord  

You've had architects somehow associated with your role for the better part of two and a half decades, right? So, post your time at Deloitte into stamps.com, into Yahoo, into Myspace, into Small Demons, into Gravity, and even now into charity: water. There's some sort of consistency of architect. And so, as you've transitioned from company to company, platform to platform, how do you think about architecture in tying together that engagement data into what to do with it? Like, there can't just be one playbook. 

  

Christa Stelzmuller  

Yeah. No, well, so no, there's not one playbook because every domain of data, for instance, is different. And every moment in time around technical architecture is different in terms of what capabilities exist. 

  

Data architecture is very consistent, though. It's about structuring information for consumption. And what you really need to learn is the domain that you're working in so that you can structure that appropriately. But if your outcome is always trying to turn what you're collecting into meaningful information that can be shared and engaged with in some way, those techniques are fairly consistent throughout the ages. We can think about them in different ways. We can call them different names over time. But logically, we're structuring information, and that's fairly consistent. And how we apply technology to that is just an exercise in progression in terms of capabilities. 

  

In earlier years, we had to think about things from a scaling perspective in a different way. And many of those problems are solved today and have been abstracted away for us. And it makes it easier for us to do the things that we need to be able to do to turn data into information. 

  

Things have gotten easier over time, but the underlying principles are very similar. It's just what you must apply in your day-to-day changes. And so, teams maybe have gotten smaller, or they're able to focus on the business use cases far more than the technical underpinnings. That has changed over time. But generally, I think our needs around how we actually structure and use information has been consistent for many, many years. 

  

Ronnie Richard  

So, as you're here today, and you're at charity: water, and you're thinking about how your tech stack is built and how not only the pieces that you use to put it together, the different products, but also how you interact with the people using them―what are some of the things that you've picked up or learned over your career? Like, the time you spent at Yahoo, and Myspace and places like that, talk about building these systems, like, what are some of the things you picked up in those early days? 

  

Christa Stelzmuller  

Yeah, I think that one of the most important lessons that I have at least picked up is that there's a confusion between more data and valuable data. And there is an idea sometimes that if you can collect more of it, magically something great is going to happen from collecting all that data. That's usually never what happens. What happens is you must actually think about what your output and your outcomes are that you want and be very thoughtful about what you collect and how you structure it so that you can turn it into something useful.  

And so, I see that mistake being … I always see that mistake made where it's like, okay, if we just throw in this additional data source, somehow we're going to turn it into something meaningful that will give us insights. It's generally not how it works. Generally, you have to really be thoughtful about your outcomes first. If you're not thinking about those outcomes first, ahead of collecting all of the information, you'll end up going down paths that just lead you nowhere. 

  

Justin McCord  

Boy, that feels like a segment into the nonprofit sector, you know? Because there are some pockets where we have spun our wheels and stayed the same for far too long. And so I'm curious, as you moved from the for-profit side into the nonprofit side, what were some initial things that you observed or identified that either, wait a second, this is far more advanced than I anticipated, or wait a second, this really stands out as stuck and needing to be unlearned and rethought? 

  

Christa Stelzmuller 

Yeah, I think this is a good question because I have a long experience in for-profit and a very short experience right now in nonprofit. And I think what I am very lucky with at charity: water is a very tech-forward organization. So I was able to join an organization where I felt like we had the team in place to be able to meet some of the ambitions that we had around what we wanted to do with respect to how all of these systems integrate and work with one another.  

So, I'm going to draw a little bit on some of the other conversations I had as I was exploring this space and trying to make the transition into it. I think what stood out to me was how many folks I worked with or spoke to where technology was thought of as a cost center and not as a revenue driver. And I think if I'm going to point out something where I think the sector is probably stuck it’s right there in that thought process. If you were thinking about your technology team as a cost center and it rolls up into your finance department, I feel like you maybe need to be rethinking how you're thinking about technology and using it to drive your organization forward because it should absolutely be sitting underneath, there should be at least a component of it sitting underneath, driving revenue, and that is where the real value of technology, I think, can live for a fundraising organization. 

  

Ronnie Richard  

I think that's so well said. We've talked numerous times this year and in the previous years about the importance of technology, especially in today's world with marketing, digital marketing and the direction that everything is heading. So I'm curious, you mentioned you were looking into the nonprofit sector. What drew you to charity: water? Was ... was moving into the nonprofit sector something specifically you were interested in or, like, tell us about that journey a little bit. 

  

Christa Stelzmuller 

It was … my goodness. So, my journey years ago started out with trying to work in this space. And so, I actually hadn't gone to college for computer science. I was in political science, and I was trying to do something very, very different. And as I had pursued that path, it was clear to me that it wasn't going to work out for me at that immediate moment in time. I was working as an intern, and trying to break into this space and it just wasn't something I could support myself doing long -term. And the timing was right around moving into technology. So I took advantage of that, but that sent me down a path that started in consulting. And then I got to experience the entire dot-com boom and grow up. 

  

I never lost what I wanted to do, though. And so, I'd been systematically trying to make my way back on that path. And it … while I first started, like, in pure engineering consulting and dot-com-type environments, I kept moving toward mission-based startups started emerging, and I was moving in that space. And then in this last moment, when I wanted to make a transition, I asked myself … I started looking at B Corps, and then I said, why am I stopping here at looking at a B Corp? Why don't I just make the jump over into the nonprofit space? I said, there must be nonprofits out there that are looking for folks who can bring the kind of experience that I've had. And what I found was this: that there are some, but there's not a ton. 

  

And that was the hard part. And so, what drew me to charity: water, honestly, was when I found the job description. I mean, charity: water has an amazing brand, and I'm always looking to align with amazing brands if I can. But the, the job description was so clearly written like a job description you would find in any startup environment. So, it said to me quite a bit about what they were looking for and the type of person they were looking for. And that's really what drew me in that direction. And I reached out immediately because it was so different than so many of the other job descriptions and folks I had been meeting when I was looking around. It was clear that they had a very different perspective. 

  

Justin McCord  

Yeah, that's, you know, charity: water … having spent now, well, more than a decade in this space and having seen charity: water grow up in some ways, I can attest to, yes, affirming, obviously affirming your decision―not that you need it, but just affirming your decision― but also telling you that in some ways they’ve become, like, the poster child. And then we also used to have a charity: water swear jar that a client referenced. Charity: water as we want to do something like, we had to put it in as though we were using a word that I wouldn't say in front of my mom. So, there's that kind of balance and tension around it.  

When you evaluate the tech stack that you have inherited there and draw back to what you said earlier about our collective tendency to want to―those are my words, not yours, but that tends to be, you know, we call data our most valuable asset, and assets are things that you want to accumulate. So, when you look at the data systems and data architecture in place, what insight can you give us into the outcomes that you have as a part of the data strategy at charity: water and how the system supports those outcomes? 

  

Christa Stelzmuller  

Right? Yeah, well, I think we're in a time of change right now. And so, I think the systems have grown up in the way that you would expect around trying to describe revenue and what our return on our spend looks like across systems. There's a lot of emphasis on our CRM, and our campaign management and things of that nature. And I think the world around at least digital marketing is … I think we all know the last few years, there's been a huge shift in how we're able to measure, and track and make decisions. And that world is continuing to change, with more and more emphasis on privacy going forward.  

And so, I think when I look at charity: water right now, we're looking at how to make that transition effectively out of something that is hyper specific, I think. I hesitate to call it old school now, but the old school world of direct attribution and things of that nature and really moving into a world where we're using MMM and other approaches like this to make our decisions going forward, which requires us to make a little bit of a mind shift around how we assess performance and how we forecast and make decisions. And so, there's a lot of change management involved with what's happening right now at charity: water as we try to make this shift away from the more understood, well understood world of how we measure our marketing efforts and enter into a completely different space and getting people really comfortable with that. 

  

Ronnie Richard 

In the same idea of not hoarding a bunch of data, making sure you've not only got the right data, but that the data is right obviously plays a huge role. Can you tell us a little bit about the role that data governance plays in what you do at charity: water? 

  

Christa Stelzmuller 

This is a fairly big shift that we're making right now. I think the data governance role wasn't well established until very, very recently. And so, there's a, we're making a fairly large undertaking right now around our classifications and segmentations so that we can ensure that we actually have the right information against all of those, against the data points that we actually collect today. We don't need to collect new ones. We just need to describe them better. 

  

And if we describe them better, we also need to make sure that the folks who are inputting the data, and really the ones interacting with our donors every single day, have an understanding around what that looks like. So, we're in the middle of establishing data governance around that in a way that we haven't done historically. And that's a shift we've started to make over the last year. And so, I think that that's another area of change management.  

And so, I think there's a lot of change management in our world around how we understand performance and how we understand data. And I think that we can put forward a lot of solutions, right? But it's really that path of carrying people from one into the next. That's where we spend most of our time. So it may not sound as exciting to say we have to spend a lot of our time in soft skills, and education and all of these spaces where we want to make sure we establish credibility and bring folks along. That's the harder part of the process is that change management. We can bring the solutions and all of that, but without the change management, there's not a lot of success. So that's where we're spending a good chunk of our time, trying to establish that process of change. 

  

Justin McCord 

You're going to make a lot of heads of development feel very good to know that you're at the beginning-to-middle of data governance because it is something that, you know, you look up, and your attic is full, and then you're like, well, how do I now back up and try to organize this thing? And that's a very simplistic picture of where so many organizations find themselves with respect to their data. 

  

Christa Stelzmuller 

Right. 

  

Justin McCord  

And having a data strategy. So, then, then, go ahead. 

  

Christa Stelzmuller 

It's, I was going to say it's so true because I think some of it comes down to an oversimplification of it where there's statements around we need a single source of truth. Well, people need to interact with the systems that make the most sense for them, right? Like, shoving everyone inside of a single system is not the answer. We want to make sure all the systems that are geared toward people's specific needs have the right information at the right time. And so, governance isn't even, it's not around a single source of truth. Governance is around consistency and integrity across your different systems, which is ultimately a bigger problem than just, say, assigning one group of people on the development team to ensure that data looks correct, right? It's a whole organizational effort to make sure data governance is in place in the right way. 

  

Justin McCord  

It is, and it's something to where, you know, you're never really done, and that's okay too. I think we want there to be a start and a stop as though we're completing a project, and we should never stop changing, and never stop evolving and never stop progressing. And, therefore, a change of management is never made. We always must navigate the change and migrate it forward. 

  

Ronnie Richard 

not just. 

  

Christa Stelzmuller  

Right? Right. 

  

Justin McCord  

I think there's another component I'm curious about, Krista, from how you approach your work and your role. And that's the other thing that I think, many times what we see from our clients, and in the broader nonprofit landscape, is that we like to live fiscal year to fiscal year. Like, we like to live in these 12-month blocks of space. And then we start over the next year. And so, I'm curious, to what extent does a multi -year roadmap around data and technology play into the way that you're approaching your role. 

  

Christa Stelzmuller  

It's actually very important. And this is another thing that was really great about charity: water was the long-term plan. There is a multi-year plan all the way out to 2030. And we try not to anticipate too much where things are going out in the future. But the road for data in particular has been mapped out across several of those years. And it's ... it's a key aspect. It's part of our key strategic initiatives. So that's what I mean when I say it has to be an entirely organizational thing. It can't be on one team that you call the data team or something along those lines to actually make it happen. There has to be a full organizational effort toward making sure that this is actually marching in the direction that you need it to.  

And so, our roadmap looks very much, I think, like any roadmap should look, where it starts with foundation building and making sure―and these are some of the pieces that are now behind us―but starting with foundation building, then looking at the areas that need to be enriched and augmented and then taking that top stack view, which is all of the different layers of basic reporting to analytics, to more sophisticated analysis, and depending on what aspect you're looking at, you can be at different stages, right? So, our marketing team can be in one stage of where they're at. Our development team can be in a different stage. Our programs team can be in yet another stage, but everyone's marching along the same path toward getting where they need to be. They just may be at different points in that roadmap. 

  

Ronnie Richard 

Krista, before we wrap up, I want to just change course slightly and go back to thinking about your career some. Who are some of the people along the way that have influenced you or have taught you things that you're still using today at charity: water? 

  

Christa Stelzmuller 

It's a big part of what we do every day. 

  

This is such a great question. Okay, who influenced me? Very, very early in my career, I don't know that this is a name that anyone will know, but at Deloitte and Touche, I had an amazing mentor. And he was a huge influence in terms of the direction that my career took because he set me on the path of data and working in that part of the stack versus, say, working on the front end or any of the other parts that I could have gotten started in. And so, I feel like he was a huge influence in terms of how I got started.  

In terms of founders that I've worked with, I worked with Dave Goldberg at Launch and Yahoo. And he was also amazing in terms of establishing for me what it means for someone to care about a team, and build a team that's focused on the right things but really care about those folks as human beings. And so, he really set a bar for me in terms of what real people management could look like overall. And then I had a partner that I've worked with for many, many years. I just have a couple of very, very good friends who are, I would consider, to be great influences for me overall. And one of them is Hala Al-Adwan and the other is Dave Brown. And they are two very, very different people who've been very pivotal at different points in my career, but what I think of when you find a great partner that you can work at role after role together, and you grow together, those folks tend to be influential for me overall in terms of how I grow. 

  

Justin McCord  

That's so awesome, Christa. Thank you for spending some time with us. If folks want to connect with you, and if they want to pick your brain on how they're approaching tech for their nonprofit or trade notes, et cetera, what's the best way for someone to connect? 

  

Christa Stelzmuller  

I think the best way is to just reach out at Christa@CharityWater.org. That might be a way and also on LinkedIn. I'm very accessible on LinkedIn. So if you send me a message there, I will get it. 

  

Justin McCord 

Very cool. Well, Krista, we're huge fans of the work that you're doing. We love seeing people lending their time and their talents towards things that make a difference. And you're doing that in droves and in a couple of different aspects. So, thank you for the work that you're doing, and thanks for hanging out with us a little bit today. 

  

Christa Stelzmuller 

Thank you for having me. This was super fun. 

 

RKD Group

RKD Group is North America's leading fundraising and marketing services provider to hundreds of nonprofit organizations, including hospitals, social service, disease research, animal welfare, rescue missions, and faith-based charities. RKD Group’s omnichannel approach leverages technology, advanced data science and award-winning strategic and creative leadership to accelerate net revenue growth, build long-term donor relationships and drive online and offline engagements and donations. With a growing team of professionals, RKD Group creates breakthroughs never thought possible.

Compass_BlogBanner-1200x500-1

 

Leave a comment:

RKD_Upcoming_Webinars_BlogBanner
MidYear Benchmarks-Sidebar_SolidGold
Gen X eBook download