CINCINNATI — Madison Smith was a graduate student at North Carolina State University when she first used her data science skills to help nonprofit organizations near campus.
She enjoyed the volunteer work so much that when Smith moved to Greater Cincinnati for a job at Fifth Third Bank, the self-described “math nerd” said she wanted to figure out a way to help here, too.
“I love to be able to use my skills for good and give back to the community,” said Smith, 25, a senior data scientist in Fifth Third’s decision sciences group. “I think it’s really important that we are just connected as people and continue to work together in whichever way that we can.”
That belief led her to Brighton Center, a Northern Kentucky-based nonprofit organization that works to help clients become self-sufficient through programs that range from pre-natal services to help for senior citizens. Smith learned about the nonprofit while attending a wine-tasting fundraiser and reached out in December 2018.
Brighton Center’s 41 distinct programs serve more than 43,000 individuals each year. But the organization was searching for a better way to collect information about its clients and the programs that help them most as a way to figure out how to help more people more efficiently, said Jennifer Hansert, Brighton Center’s grants and quality improvement administrator.
Smith contacted Brighton Center just as the organization was working to design a new database to better capture the numbers that represent its work and how its many programs help people, Hansert said.
“We really want to be able to have some deep insights about who we’re serving, how we’re serving and what difference it’s making in their life,” she said.
Smith spent roughly 50 hours volunteering on the project in 2019, consulting with Brighton Center on how to design the database to get the best results when it launched in November of that year. This year, Smith and six other North Carolina State grads who work in Fifth Third’s decision sciences group have spent about 225 hours total analyzing the data in different ways and showing Brighton Center staff they can learn from the database.
‘An utter game changer’
Using the data analysis, Brighton Center can examine which programs are helping families most effectively, where the most families live and whether there are racial disparities in any of the program’s outcomes, Hansert said.
Smith and the Fifth Third team found, for example, that Brighton Center’s Financial Coaching, Financial Education Workshops and Center for Employment Training are the organization’s most connected program. They also found that families with higher education levels, Black families and older families are more likely to achieve the goals they set for themselves and that 91% of families who have reached their goals have gotten financial coaching.
Hansert said she was blown away when she got the initial analysis from Smith and her colleagues.
“It’s an utter game changer for us,” she said. “We don’t have the tools, and we don’t necessarily have the deep amount of expertise that these data scientists have on how to pull out these different insights.”
Smith said the initial findings are just the beginning.
With a year’s worth of data, she and the other Fifth Third volunteers will be able to dig deeper and find even more meaningful trends and patterns, she said.
“That is the beauty about analytics,” Smith said. “I like to think of it as this really awesome mix of art and science.”
Hansert said she and the Brighton Center team appreciate that Smith and her colleagues bring a fresh perspective to the work. Smith said the best results come from combining that fresh perspective with the expertise that Brighton Center staff members bring to the mix from doing the day-to-day work with families.
“When we mix those two together,” she said, “it allows us to paint a better story and a better picture.”
Volunteering with Brighton Center isn’t Smith’s only commitment outside of her job at Fifth Third.
'Self-sufficiency all around'
Western Hills High School named her the school’s new girls soccer coach in July.
Add concerns about the coronavirus pandemic to the mix, and life can feel stressful, she acknowledged.
But that stress, Smith said, makes the volunteer work more important than ever.
“Knowing that this is making a difference,” she said, “that actually took the stress away from it, if that makes sense, knowing that this is serving a larger purpose. And so it was fun, actually to be able to step into a new space.”
Next Smith and the other Fifth Third volunteers will be working to analyze a year’s worth of Brighton Center data. After that, they hope to build a platform that Brighton Center staff members can use to plug in numbers and analyze data on their own.
The goal, Smith said, is to help the nonprofit become self-sufficient when it comes to the organization’s data analytics needs, even as Brighton Center works to help the region’s families become self-sufficient.
"Self-sufficiency all around!" she said.
“At the end of the day, we are all people. And I think this serves as a really good example of when people come together, the things we can accomplish,” Smith said. “I just love that conversation and being in that space again and knowing that we’re coming together and ultimately helping families right within our local community.”
Hansert said Brighton Center couldn’t be more grateful for the help. And Lauren Copeland, Brighton Center’s development director, said she hopes other professionals hear about Smith’s work and get inspired.
“There’s some real opportunity in this community,” Copeland said. “To really look at skilled volunteer opportunities and how different organizations who have a really specific skill set can utilize that skill set to really help move some work forward and provide some really much-needed capacity to nonprofit organizations.”
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and for WCPO 9. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.