The Wells Foundation Discusses the Role of Data Analytics in the Nonprofit Sector
Tony Wells - Central Ohio Tech Power Player Honoree
The Wells Foundation
Director of Market Strategy – Central Ohio
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Founder of The Wells Foundation, Tony Wells, discusses the role of data analytics in the nonprofit sector.
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SG: We're here today with Tony Wells, founder of The Wells Foundation, an organization based in Central Ohio that provides charitable funding for over 200-plus charities in 26 states. I'm Steve Gruetter with Expedient, and I'm your guest moderator today. Tony, let's get started.
TW: Good morning, Steve.
SG: Absolutely! Tell us about your role in the community, Tony.
TW: So, I was very blessed. Both my wife and I had an IT background, and back in the ‘90s – yes, way back then – we started an IT training and education company here in Columbus and, like most entrepreneurial startups, second mortgage your house, charge money on credit cards. We opened up a single-classroom technology training center, and that was in 1993. Nine years later, we had 120 classrooms in 18 cities across the U.S. and Canada. So, we took our profession, we turned it into entrepreneurship and then we were very blessed at the height of the technology bubble. We sold that company and…
SG: Perfect timing.
TW: Yeah, we didn't plan on it be perfect timing because we put the company up for sale about nine months prior to that, but we were very blessed based on timing that gave us the financial blessings to start other things or do other things. And we started thinking about what are the things that have always shaped our life? What are the leadership lessons we had when we were in the IT field? And most of them came from serving on nonprofit boards. So, serving on nonprofit boards, we had the pleasure of being mentored and coached by people that were 20 years our senior. And one of the things that we were always amazed about is how you can be the CEO of Columbia Gas, Jack Partridge, you know, managing billions of dollars and tens of thousands of employees but still showing up every single month committed, ready to serve, doing everything possible to make the nonprofit successful. So, when we had the opportunity to retire in our late 30s, we decided that we wanted to follow that leadership style and create a family foundation. So, here we are,18 years later. We're very blessed that every single day we get a chance to work with nonprofit leaders, social entrepreneurs, and we have the opportunity to invest into them to make a stronger Columbus community.
SG: I see you working all the time. I would not call what you're doing retired right now, Tony.
TW: But it's a passion, you know, and I think most people who are entrepreneurs, they invest that passion. They don't keep track of the hours. And so, yes, I do work a lot of hours, but it's all for the community. So, I think there are times in your life where you want to create personal wealth, and then I think there are times in your life you want to create societal wealth for the community. So, I'm very blessed to be in that second phase of my life.
SG: Now, of the organizations that you're involved in here in Central Ohio, when I think of your organizations, the first thing I think of is GroundWork Group and what you've done with United Way and other organizations.
TW: Really, the credit for GroundWork Group goes to many individuals. In 2003, when Janet Jackson became the new president of the United Way, she reached out to The Wells Foundation. She said, “We heard you were giving technology grants to nonprofit organizations and you are helping them think more strategically about the use of technology. We would like you to do that for all the United Way agencies.” We thought, Holy Cow! Red Cross, Big Brothers, Big sisters – that's way too big for us. So, we reached out to our CIO community and individuals like Ben Blanquera and Angelo Mazzocco. Everybody came to the table. So, there were 15 of us – entrepreneurs, CIOs, philanthropists and nonprofit leaders – who came together and said, could we create a shared services model for the Columbus nonprofit community? We didn't know what the heck we were building at the time. We just knew we had a vision. And so, over the next three years, we recruited 200 volunteers from the nonprofit sector. We had 13 working committees, and in the first two years we had 1,200 meetings, bringing folks together to talk about if we could leverage the knowledge that is already in the for-profit sector to be applied to the nonprofit sector, could we increase the level of efficiency that would ultimately enable our nonprofit communities to serve more families in need? So, GroundWork Group was then birthed in 2006 after three years of piloting 13 different ideas. Here we are 15 years later – GroundWork Group itself serves about 200 charities in the community, and we wouldn't be successful if it wasn't for the vision of the CIO community, the nonprofit leaders, and supported by philanthropy. So, we played a very small role in the effort. There were a lot of people involved.
SG: Tremendous success with the community. It truly has been. What do you see as the next big success for the Central Ohio IT community?
TW: Well, when it comes to bridging this intersection of the nonprofit community, the IT community and what we call social innovation, there are a lot of exciting things going on with artificial intelligence, data analytics. One of the things we did in the last 12 months is, The Columbus Foundation and The Wells Foundation combined to provide a GroundWork Group a $100,000 grant to hire their first impact data analyst. So, in the last year, GroundWork Group now has developed seven different pilot projects in partnerships with nonprofits around data analytics. To get us up to speed and to perfect the process, we relied on people at [Columbus] Collaboratory and we relied on other folks around town. So, very similar to for-profit organizations, we believe that data analytics and artificial intelligence have a critical role in the nonprofit sector.
SG: That's going to be interesting how your organization takes that technology and applies it in the community. I'm looking forward to some success stories coming out of that.
SG: What do you think is the current big success locally?
TW: For IT in general?
TW: Well, you know, what I think is, we should all be very proud of Columbus. Not only do we have the CIO Forum – which has been around for years – and we have CIO Tomorrow. As I've traveled to other cities – I mentioned we do work in 26 states – we do not see the collaborative nature within the IT community as we see here in Columbus. Not only do we see it as a way of networking and lifting up the next generation of IT professionals, but just the national collaboration, even in the nonprofit sector. So, one of our recent projects is, IGS Energy has a corporate social responsibility program where we can take them projects that are needed by nonprofits, and their IT department will actually develop them and code them up for us.
SG: IGS has been a wonderful community partner. They're highly involved in the i.c.stars project.
SG: And I wish all organizations had this social awareness and presence that IGS does.
TW: So, I think that's a huge opportunity. I think we should be very aware of the success of how well our IT organizations work together. We've also got this great entrepreneurial environment, so we have wonderful startups, like Root Insurance and others. I mean, it's been fantastic to see the startups do so well in Columbus. But I do believe that there's a wonderful opportunity for corporate social responsibility for each CIO to start an initiative inside their departments where they can offer their staff as volunteers and give them something that not just – while it's very worthwhile – serving food in a soup kitchen. People want to use their talents. So, wouldn't it be great if we had more organizations like i.c.stars and Per Scholas and Groundwork Group who are helping these organizations become vested in the community but use the talents that they already have?
SG: That leads into a question I've wanted to ask you. That is, in the realm of social responsibility, what other advice would you give for an aspiring CIO?
TW: I would suggest that they join a nonprofit board.
TW: One of the programs that was started about 12 years ago by Groundwork Group – and the committee chair was Angelo Mazzocco – and, of course, Angelo has his fingerprints on everything.
SG: That’s correct.
TW: We started a board matching program. So currently, 100 top CIOs or IT professionals have been placed on nonprofit boards. And those CIOs serve as the coach and the mentor to the executive director of a nonprofit. Many of our nonprofit leaders have been in their roles for 10 to 20 years and they're not quite ready to lead. So, one of the things they said to us 13 years ago is, we need a professional coach. So, we thought one of the best things we could do is put CIOs onto nonprofit boards. Not only is it providing an opportunity for them to coach up a new professional and influence what that organization does, but what a rewarding opportunity for the CIO to then learn about board governance, leadership, and become vested in the community. So, I think all aspiring CIOs really need to become involved. And if they can get onto a nonprofit board, I think it will be a life-changing experience for them.
SG: That is great input to give to the aspiring CIO community. And we have plenty of those folks right here in Central Ohio.
SG: We are certainly a growing community and we're going to need more leaders to be stepping up.
SG: And I hope that resonates with the community that's listening to this.
TW: Unfortunately, what happens is, when a CIO retires, that’s when they reach out to us and say, do you have a board I can serve on? And we would love to have them. I joined my first nonprofit board when I was 27 years old. I was the youngest member of Goodwill, and have now been, between on the regular board and their honorary board, on the board for 27 years. I think once you become vested in the community, you can use your talent – as we say, time, talent, and treasure – to support those organizations.
SG: Tony Wells, thank you very much for your time. This is Steve Gruetter. We are representing comSpark and the Tech Power Players here in Central Ohio. To learn more about this event, please visit comspark.tech. Goodbye, until next time.
TW: Thank you, Steve.
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