How to Recruit Leaders to Tackle Urban Civic Hacking

by Bob Gradeck

May 22, 2018

Guest blog by Justin Cole, Founder of Carnegie Mellon University’s Students for Urban Data Systems

Back in August 2015, a group of Carnegie Mellon students came together in Pittsburgh to create Students for Urban Data Systems (SUDS). SUDS provided a space for students and community members to come together and work on data projects with community organizations, learn new data tools through workshops, and hear about the latest developments in data science, data visualization, and data management. Like most student organizations, one of our greatest challenges was the nearly constant turnover of members. Most importantly for us, we were facing the loss of all of our founding board members, all of whom were graduating in May 2017. While we knew that students and community members were interested in keeping the organization alive (we had over 400 members at the time), we were unsure how much interest there would be to lead the organization.

Therefore, we put into place an aggressive strategy for recruiting, selecting, and training a diverse group of students to join the board. We were supported in this effort by friends from the Civic Tech and Open Data Roundtable organized by the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, a participant in the Civic Tech and Data Collaborative. The five key points of our strategy are below. While these are SUDS-specific, I think they could be useful to any student group transitioning leadership.

  1. Invite potential leaders to take responsibilities early. Nearly six months before we started the official transition, we began to open up our board meetings and invite other students who had shown an interest in leadership to attend meetings and take on responsibilities. In fact, people outside of the board planned nearly all events that occurred in the months leading up to the transition. By stepping out of the way, the outgoing board  created room for the new leaders to step in. This helped the current board work closely with these new potential leaders and allowed the potential leaders to “see themselves” in the organization.
  2. Schedule one-on-one meetings. In the two to three months leading up to the application process, I encouraged current board members to meet one-on-one for coffee or lunch with students who had shown an interest in SUDS. At these meetings, we spoke with the students about their aspirations and interests, if we thought SUDS fit with those interests, encouraged them to apply. This direct appeal was extremely successful, and nearly everyone we met with ultimately submitted an application.    
  3. Hold an organizational “open house.” This step would not have been possible without the support of the local civic tech community. We hosted a leadership open house at a nearby restaurant and invited all students interested in leadership and our community partners to attend. This was a terrific way for students to see the broader ecosystem in which SUDS worked and helped SUDS differentiate itself. Incoming SUDS Director Chris Worley remarked that “the event was attended by community and student leaders and allowed those with an interest in taking a more active role in doing good with data a chance to meet with the folks who are doing just that.” We also purposely scheduled the event to occur the day before the application opened, so that the social aspect of SUDS was fresh on their mind when they applied.
  4. Make applications easy and the selection process transparent. We knew at the beginning that we were looking for a transparent, fair way to encourage a broader group of people from diverse backgrounds to apply and join, as SUDS prides itself on being one of the few truly multidisciplinary organizations on campus. When we finally opened the application process, we sought to make it easy while still being thorough, as we did not want a burdensome application to be the reason someone new did not apply. In addition, we changed our selection process from a voting process to an application process. There were two reasons for this: First, our membership structure is loose, so there is a question of who should be eligible to vote and second, we found that voting tended to elect people from the same degree programs that were already in the organization.
  5. Have a leadership retreat. Approximately two weeks after the board was selected, we scheduled a half-day retreat at a nonprofit off campus with the new and old board members, again with the support of the civic tech community. This not only served as a “knowledge transfer” for the incoming group, but also gave the outgoing members an opportunity to talk about SUDS mission, objectives, and aspirations. It also gave the incoming members an opportunity to get to know one another.

What were the outcomes of our strategy? Well, we received 13 applications from undergraduates, graduates and PhD candidates across four of the seven colleges at Carnegie Mellon University, a healthy pool for an organization that previously only had four board positions, all from the same college. We ended up selecting 10 of these applicants and filling all vacant board positions, while also creating two new ones – Undergraduate Liaison and Speaker Series Chair.

While we were extremely pleased at these outcomes, and at the enthusiasm and commitment the incoming leadership has already demonstrated, there are always areas for improvement and with SUDS this is no exception. I believe the organization can continue to build a sense of inclusiveness by actively partnering with other organizations on campus in order to recruit a diverse membership body (and by extension, a diverse leadership structure). While I am proud of everything we accomplished in the first year and a half as an organization, I am even more excited to hear about the good work that is yet to come.

The Civic Tech and Data Collaborative is a partnership of Code for America, Living Cities, and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership and is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The national organizations are working with seven communities around the country to understand how to harness the power of data and technology to increase efficiency, equity, and effectiveness in order to benefit the most vulnerable residents in our urban communities.