Inside Info on How to Hire a Data Analyst for a Nonprofit

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A comprehensive job description is a great first step when hiring a data analyst, but what often gets overlooked is the type of person best suited for this role. A data analyst, especially in the landscape of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), might wear several hats that extend their skills outside the technical demands of the job.

Technical experience will certainly be a central part of a data analyst role, but strong communication and relationship-building skills, being an educator and advocate of data along with a sense of purpose in the work are important as well.

data analyst: Jason Melchi (headshot), owner of Empact Solutions, smiling bearded, mustachioed man with checked cap, blue hoodie, white T-shirt

Jason Melchi

It is tempting to be impressed by technical jargon, especially when the nuts and bolts of data technology can feel very intimidating. It makes sense to want to trust someone with the aspects of this work that can feel foreign to us. Although impressive, be careful assessing whether a data analyst is the right fit for your needs solely on technical abilities.

The ability to communicate complex information in a clear and easy to understand way is often overlooked when hiring an analyst. Being warm, receptive and engaged develops trust. Although data analysts are often pegged as IT-type roles, embodying the social work motto of “meet them where they are” will separate good analysts from great analysts.

Data analysts should show patience and investment while working closely with stakeholders to develop their understanding and appreciation of data. We can make this core strategy of using data much more difficult than it needs to be. The ideal data analyst may be walking into a place where there are many people who feel intimidated by data (and some who are perhaps eager to learn).

This is even more challenging if site leaders are resistant to data. You may hire the most amazing, technically sound and purpose-driven analyst but if they can’t overcome institutional resistance to data their overall efforts may be fleeting.

Of course, institutional resistance to data is not a task that the analyst is solely responsible for. We all have a part to play in that, but can we find a data analyst who is committed to education who is able to challenge our biases and help us gain more confidence in our use of data? This often-overlooked strategy may determine how well the use of data infuses your system’s culture while planting seeds for enduring success.

Purpose-driven vs technology-driven

Perhaps most importantly, great analysts should care about the mission of JDAI and be an integral member of the team, participating in meetings while being encouraged to share their ideas and thoughts. We often feel that IT/data folks speak an entirely different language than we do and the relationship can feel siloed. We may only engage with them as requests arise. That often seems to suit both parties.

I believe that is a missed opportunity. The ideal data analyst in JDAI is purpose-driven. Why does a data analyst love what they do? If they speak only to the love of the puzzle that technology and data presents and don’t speak about the power of data as a tool that informs meaningful change, it should give you pause and at the very least provide a set of interview questions to consider when interviewing candidates.

Here are examples of things for your interview team to consider that embrace a healthy data culture:

What are the responsibilities of the position?

Will this person have other tasks beyond JDAI?

What relationship will the analyst have with other stakeholders?

Will the analyst have the ability to access raw data?

Will there be enough work to keep this person busy full-time? If not, is this a part-time position or perhaps a consulting position?

Are there specific data tools (beyond Microsoft products) you are looking for expertise in?

Consider asking candidates to bring copies of data presentations they have put together (anonymized data). Are they clear and easy to understand without explanation?

Will this person be responsible for presenting data or leading discussions with stakeholders? Assess whether the candidates are confident speakers and make their message come across as important to the interviewers.

And here are examples of interview questions:

Describe your knowledge of the juvenile justice system.

What experience do you have with data-driven decision-making within an organization? Provide an example.

Describe your approach for analyzing a new data set that you are not familiar with.

How do you inform the questions you seek to get answers to within the data?

What data analysis tools are you most comfortable using?

What experience do you have visualizing data and communicating data? (Customize this for each candidate based on what they shared in their resume.)

What approach would you take if those you were presenting to were stakeholders who were dispassionate about data and perhaps even intimidated by it?

Provide an example of a time you discovered unexpected results within a data set. How did you make this discovery?

What approach do you take when developing dashboards and presentations for stakeholders?

What are your guiding principles?

How does your approach differ for different types of audiences?

What experience do you have with resolving data quality issues?

You presented a data summary to your team using different graphs and visuals. Afterward, there are no questions or discussion of the data. What would you take away from this scenario and how might you address it?

You have discovered data findings that may be concerning to your organization’s work. How would you approach this situation?

What is it that you love about data?

Jason Melchi is the owner of Empact Solutions, a purpose-driven consulting group focused on developing data capacity for social service organizations in order to improve outcomes for youth, families and communities. He can be reached at


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