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Pro Bono Analytics for CDCs

March 23rd, 2015 by Michael Johnson

How do you know if your programming is making a difference?  How are you measuring your organization’s impact?  If you can provide direct first-hand experience in a compelling narrative for one situation or family with whom you provided critical support, then you’re off to a strong start.  But, of course, it’s not enough anymore to send along one or maybe two success stories to a funder; and personal narrative doesn’t help you identify trends and patterns as readily as data.  Of course, data is a vague term and even idea to many.  Often, discussing how to measure the impact of an organization can quickly become supplanted by how much is this going to cost and statements, such as “I can’t dedicate half my staff to measuring what the other half of the team is doing!”  This is where a consultant in operations can be of great value to identify what needs to be tracked, measured and quantified, and, of course, how to do it without consuming mission-critical resources.

As a professor in business operations and management at UMass Boston, I first became interested in the work of CDCs when I learned about the vital role they play in providing affordable housing. After coming to UMass Boston, I directed a class project with MACDC as the client, and saw how impactful the field was to many communities across Massachusetts.

My research and community service has taught me that many organizations struggle to acquire, use and share data to improve daily operations, or to make difficult strategic decisions. One community development corporation wanted to prevent blighted properties from falling into the hands of ‘slumlords’. The CDC, however, could not develop all of the properties it had acquired in a timely manner – putting it at risk of becoming, in the eyes of community members, just as bad as the slumlords they were acting against. Another CDC was well-respected for their work in acquiring and redeveloping distressed housing, but wanted to do a better job identifying acquisition opportunities on the basis of characteristics they didn’t know how to measure: a property’s ‘strategic value’, and its potential contribution to  stabilizing local property values.

How could these organizations, and many like them, use data to make their organizations and their communities stronger?

One answer to this question is provided by the field of ‘analytics’. Analytics is the process of applying know-how to data to answer questions that can enable organizations to better fulfill their missions. Analytics can seem unfamiliar, or maybe not relevant to the challenge of serving and uplifting our communities, but it’s an important aspect of solving daily problems and setting strategic priorities.

Community-based nonprofits, mission-driven and resource-limited, don’t have much time or expertise to devote to analytics – there are proposals to write, staff to manage, clients to be served, all in an environment of shrinking, or at least shifting, resources. How could these organizations afford to hire data-savvy consultants?

The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS, www.informs.org) has developed a new initiative that can meet this important need of nonprofits, especially smaller, community-focused organizations. Called “Pro Bono Analytics," it connects nonprofits who need to use data to answer hard questions with volunteer experts who will work with these nonprofits to collect, analyze and share data – all for free.

If you work for an organization that would benefit from using data to help track performance and community impact, but can’t afford the time or resources to get the job done right, Pro Bono Analytics wants to help. 

For example:

  • How do we know if our programs are making a difference? Do they justify the time and effort we put into them?
  • We want to start a new program – but what is the need for it? How can we convince funders to support the initiative?
  • How can we redesign our initiatives to be as efficient and as effective as possible?

Pro Bono Analytics exists to answer these and other important questions. We’re different from students whose good works may not last after they graduate, or researchers who may produce studies that will sit on your shelves. Instead, we’re professionals in analytics who are committed to community service, and we want to help your organizations become as successful as possible, for free. If you’d like your organization to start a project with Pro Bono Analytics, or just want to learn more about analytics for nonprofit organizations, contact Prof. Michael Johnson at michael.johnson@umb.edu.

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Michael Johnson is a professor in the Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs, University of Massachusetts Boston. His research focuses on decision models and analytics for housing and community development. He is a member of INFORMS and the Boston node of the Urban-Based Research Action Network, Urban.Boston. More information about his research, teaching and service can be found at http://works.bepress.com/michael_johnson/

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