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CASE STUDY: Mapping New Strategic Directions and Organizational Models for SMU DataArts

Strategic Planning, Technology Assessment, Stakeholder Research, and Organizational & Business Model Development (2021)

Facing a budget deficit, dwindling interest from funders, and reduced university financial support, DataArts hired Justin Birdsong to help define a new strategic operating plan, inclusive of staff and organizational structure, service delivery model, and data collection mechanisms.

DataArts is a subsidiary of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University (SMU). The organization was originally founded in 2004 as an arts service organization that maintained a custom data collection platform for arts & cultural organizations to submit financial, programmatic, and operating data to support grantmaking, advocacy, and organizational financial health. Having gone through multiple business model transformations and parent organizations, and reckoning with shifting perceptions about DataArts’ role as a barrier to equitable access to funding, DataArts sought a new strategic direction that could ensure the organization’s relevance and longevity for years to come.

We conducted extensive interviews with DataArts’ staff, board, and a cross-section of its three key customer audiences: arts & cultural nonprofits, private and government funders, and research partners. We also researched “lookalikes” and peer organizations to identify other operating models that could provide a sustainable alternative structure for DataArts. Because data collection and both academic and paid research are crucial to DataArts’ value proposition, we proposed alternative data collection models that would reduce the data entry burden for DataArts’ sector-wide “survey” respondents while providing value-based incentives for orgs willing to participate in deeper research.

We recommended that DataArts retire its high-cost proprietary software and invest instead in standard products and integrations. These service model changes called for a complete top-to-bottom restructuring of the organization, for which we also provided multiple scenarios and change management maps. DataArts adopted all of our recommendations, which came to form the backbone of their 2023-25 Strategic Plan.