Alumni Spotlight: Q&A with Colleen Dilenschneider, MPA ’11

January 27, 2014
Colleen Dilenschneider

Colleen Dilenschneider

In 2011, Colleen Dilenschneider graduated from USC Price’s Master of Public Administration program with a concentration in nonprofit management. Today, she is the Chief Market Engagement Officer for the marketing intelligence and consulting company IMPACTS, where she makes big data accessible to organizations and specializes in audience engagement initiatives and digital marketing.

In addition, Colleen also dedicates her time to helping advance the service sector through her popular website, Know Your Own Bone, a resource that offers creative online engagement strategies and best practices for nonprofit and cultural organizations including museums, zoos and aquariums.

For those who may be unfamiliar with digital marketing and predictive technology, how would you explain the work that you do?

I help “future-proof” nonprofit organizations – particularly visitor-serving organizations. I do this by working with executive decision makers on the evolution and deployment of innovative community engagement practices (often social media and digital engagement initiatives) that are informed by proprietary data collected by IMPACTS that both identify and predict trends in the market’s behavior.

In short, IMPACTS collects data that spots emerging trends in securing visitors and donors, and I analyze the information and work with organizations to help carry out these forward-facing strategies.

What compelled you to start Know Your Own Bone? And what do you ultimately hope to achieve through your efforts in it?

Enrolling in graduate school at USC Price compelled me to start Know Your Own Bone! I originally began writing it in 2009 to reflect on my experiences in graduate school and also to keep a digital presence in the “real life” professional world while I was a full-time graduate student. At first, Know Your Own Bone served to help me unearth my own bone. Now it’s more of a resource to provide “gnawing bones” for folks looking to keep nonprofits relevant in an increasingly competitive market (i.e. meeting financial bottom lines while sparking those life-changing “sticky” moments that are the aim of many museums).

Know Your Own Bone focuses on the audience of visitor-serving organizations and how they think and behave – which makes it a bit different than other blogs or columns in the sense that it focuses on these nonprofits as the world sees them (“outside-in”) and less on the internal thought processes that sometimes govern nonprofit management (“inside-out”).

I blog because every day I’m in meetings with access to often-surprising data and analytics – and I often believe that that data or topic is important for moving the sector forward. Certainly, a vast majority of the information that I have from my work with IMPACTS is proprietary, but Know Your Own Bone is a platform where I have permission to share what I can with the broader nonprofit sector. In sum, I write Know Your Own Bone because I think it’s the right thing to do and I hope that the information is at least a bit helpful in elevating the sector. I like to think of myself as a private-sector/nonprofit sector double agent (….with permissions).

What excites you most about your work? What do you find most rewarding?

My work is entirely current and forward-facing, which is very exciting to me. IMPACTS collects real-time data and changing opinions – so I need to be able to adapt quickly, take in multiple data points to develop engagement and public relations strategies based upon market perceptions, and keep a constant watch on the platforms that have the greatest influence with target audiences. And we live in an era wherein digital platforms themselves are constantly evolving! I’m also dual-based out of London and Chicago, so I get to do a lot of traveling. This global perspective with access to trend data means that I am always on my toes and things never get boring.

While travel and real-time data access are exciting, what I love most about what I do is getting to work with museums (a great love of mine) and the hope that my work may help these organizations inspire audiences – and perhaps even elevate an industry.

What initially sparked your interest in technology and social media as means for social impact?

I started with an interest in museums and visitor-serving organizations – not necessarily technology – and I was attracted to my early jobs and internships by the social mission of inspiring informal learning.

As a “digital native” and member of Generation Y, I noticed a perception among my friends that museums (and even gardens, aquariums, symphonies, and other visitor-serving organizations) may be becoming irrelevant in the digital age. It seemed natural for me that if I wanted to increase excitement for these organizations, I could do it effectively online. I dug in from there by keeping tabs on the online engagement initiatives of museums and other nonprofit organizations and aggregating research.

Thanks to Know Your Own Bone, I was increasingly asked to speak and write about digital communications at schools and conferences (I even missed a few classes at USC to speak at other graduate schools!) and I was picked up by IMPACTS upon graduation. Case-in-point: the Internet is a powerful tool to elevate reputation and spawn investment!

How did your experiences at USC Price shape who you are now?

I think there’s something about spending two years surrounded by intelligent, public-service-oriented go-getters that sticks with you, reinforces your values, and solidifies your personal aspirations to provide value. At least, that had a profound affect on me.

In what ways has USC Price informed your work and/or prepared you professionally?

My time and experience at Price allowed me to “zoom out” on the sector in a way that was very valuable to me – and in a way that I continue to try and channel in my current role at IMPACTS. My classmates and I were encouraged to delve into nonprofit best practices – and, in my favorite classes, challenge and question them.

Was there any course or faculty member at USC Price you found particularly inspirational?

As a young female interested in culture and the power of social connectivity, I was inspired by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s work, as well as her kindness in meeting with me a time or two regarding her professional focus on art and culture research. It was refreshing to see USC Price support a young woman on the cutting edge of cultural/social research in a policy/administration sphere.

Dr. Peter Robertson’s class put a name to “double-loop learning” for me, and I walked out of his class with an increased awareness and general thoughtfulness regarding human behavior within organizations after nearly every session.

Additionally, Dr. Donald Morgan’s capstone class had a significant affect on me – not because of the capstone project itself, but because he so honestly provided his real-life perspectives as an active fundraiser in the nonprofit field, and he could speak regarding both theory and practice. Not to mention, Dr. Morgan was one of the only staff members active on any social media platforms, and he didn’t shy away from talking about the increasing importance of these communications and connectivity methods during class at the time. I deeply appreciated that, within my very last course, I had a professor who may have understood the evolving and increasing value of these platforms in serving multiple purposes for nonprofits.

What lessons learned at USC have you found most valuable as you progress in your career?

There are many, but to put some to a few words: “You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” “People who learn quickly have a competitive advantage,” and “Businesses survive on information, not harmony” are one-line lessons that I scribbled down during Dr. Robert Myrtle’s Strategic Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations course that have served me well and have already made me more thoughtful in my career.

Can you elaborate on the sense of community that you experienced at the USC Price School?

The sense of community that I experienced at USC Price School was one of, if not the very most, influential aspects of my graduate school experience. The community was eager, intelligent, current-event-oriented and public-service motivated.

It is inspiring to be connected to so many individuals working toward great change. Many of my classmates remain some of my biggest cheerleaders, and I hope that many of my classmates feel my continuous excitement for their achievements as well.

More than that – the community still helps me grow. For instance, though we work in different sectors (he is a prestigious Broad Resident tackling formal education for LAUSD, while I work to aid informal learning environments), I still cherish long phone calls with my “mentor,” Brian Lin, whom I was introduced to through the Graduate Policy and Administration Community’s (GPAC’s) program that connected first-year students with second-year students. Our calls tackle change theory and leadership strategy – and I am grateful that USC Price provided me with a community of these types of people who make me better every day.