Meet Elana Needle - Our N of 1

Meet Elana Needle - Our N of 1

L to R: Jamie, Trish, and ELANA!  (To answer your question: Yes. Yes she is rockin’ a Roots Christmas sweater)
People usually use the term “N of 1” to call themselves out when they know they’re making a gross generalization based on a small body of evidence.

“By the way, you have to make sure you repeat your extra pickles order at this place.  They always, always forget.”

“Always always?”

“Well they forgot last time I was here so...well...N of 1.”

Now, I’m a fan of sound data as much as the next person, but every once in awhile an N of 1 can do a pretty solid job of giving you all the evidence you need.  For example, we’re choosing to believe that Elana Needle, our new Data Systems Director, is what the entire nonprofit sector workforce will look like in 15 years.  Okay, well maybe it won’t look like her, specifically, but I do believe that what now feels like the incredibly unique (and fortuitous!) combination of skills, experiences, and interests that she brings will become more and more common.  And it’s exciting to think about all the ways this will transform the way we work for change.

Early in 2014, YNPN went through an intensive Theory of Change process that made clear to us,  if we had any chance of achieving our audacious goal building a diverse and powerful social sector, we needed dynamic data and communications systems. So in the posting for our newly-developed Data Systems Manager position, we explained that we were looking for someone who could help YNPN:

  • Become the representative voice of young nonprofit professionals (YNPs) across the country
  • Develop a data platform that provides robust space for member-to-member connections, chapter-to-chapter connections, and network-to-sector connections.
  • Create a data-positive culture – which means respect, skill, and enthusiasm for data-backed decision making – amongst our chapter leaders and members that will improve the way our whole sector thinks about and uses data.

Almost immediately after posting we started to hear from the naysayers - folks explaining to us that the person we were searching for didn’t exist.  You might be able to find someone who can set up and manage a database, they said.  But there’s no way you can find someone who has a mind for all that AND can rally an entire network to be engaged and excited about the possibilities of data.  

That person just doesn’t exist, they said.

But then we also started to hear from these people who supposedly didn’t exist, so many of them from right within our network - people with the unique combination of skills we were looking for who came by these in equally unique and interesting ways.  They were library scientists and policy analysts and computer game developers.  Many of them had been working in the private sector or were working in the nonprofit sector and thought that their interest in data meant that they would spend their careers relegated to dark corners of the social sector.

So in their letters to us and in their interviews, many of these same folks talked about how surprised and encouraged they were to see a position like this prioritized for an organization as small as ours.  We, in turn, were thrilled to find that there actually were people out there with the right set of skills we were looking for - not a deluge but enough to make us hopeful.

When we saw Elana’s resume, however, and finally had the chance to interact with her in person, we knew we’d found the one.  Her education ranged from a Bachelor’s degree in Women’s Studies to a PhD in Social Welfare (did you even know that was a thing?  We didn’t, but how cool is that?)  She’d spent the last six years building, training folks on, and evaluating the U.S. pilot of a very technical British program aimed at reducing childhood obesity.  And in her spare time, she was researching and writing on topics like, “Race, Space, and the Urban South.”

We assumed from her resume that she had a mind for data and analysis but did she have the personality to engage our network and to fit our organizational culture?  Within moments of our first in-person interview, there was no question.  Elana immediately dispelled all the myths we’d been hearing from the naysayers about who can be a data jock.  First: she is a she (apparently the ladies can do numbers too!  Who knew??)  Second, she’s a border crosser - able to navigate between the wonk world and the world that the rest of us occupy with ease.  Most importantly, she so obviously gets that data is meant to be in service of greater goals - like understanding the impacts of race and space - it is not a goal in and of itself.

Given all this, we naturally feel incredibly lucky and proud to have Elana join YNPN as our Data Systems Director and third staffer.

We know that she is the right person at the right time to help us achieve our audacious goals.  But we’re also excited for what the fact that someone like Elana signals for the future of the sector in general.  We’re willing to use our N of 1 to point to an exciting trend in the diversity of fields, majors, and backgrounds that are making their way to the sector.  Or stories of how those currently in the sector are building their knowledge base in areas that go beyond traditional nonprofit management to strengthen the field - everything from organizational development to somatics.

There is a growing realization that the complex work of building a just society requires an equally complex combination of talents.  We couldn’t be more thrilled to have Elana as both an example and as a new partner in building the sort of network that we believe is necessary to support these emerging leaders.  Here’s to the future of YNPN!

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