For those romantics entering into a lifelong partnership, anniversaries are the markers of success. The proof and evidence of something built that lasts; something that works. And in this spirit of love and commitment, this issue celebrates the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) at the University of Notre Dame’s ten-year anniversary. So successful the decade in action that if it were a marriage union, everyone on staff would be given a gift made of tin, the marital symbol for durability and withstanding.
And so here we are, ten years into a grand experiment (upon experiment). While I haven’t prepared a slideshow for this milestone, a good summary of the meet cute and some anecdotes of those close to the love story seem fitting of such an important anniversary.
“Ten years…so how did you get here?” I asked Heather Reynolds, LEO’s managing director, while on her car audio that quite literally sounded like she was in a tin can.
She recounts the first meeting, which happened when Father Larry Snyder, Head of Catholic Charities USA at the time, brought her to the table alongside Jim Sullivan and Bill Evans of the prestigious University of Notre Dame. In what was a precursor to what would one day be called LEO, the giants in the Catholic world were uniting to figure out how to best combine their powers for good. They were curiously debating who in the nonprofit sphere would be willing to open up their most vulnerable innerworkings and see if they were effective (and to what degree) to begin with.
“Me!” Heather said, the then CEO/President of Catholic Charities Fort Worth. Four other pedigreed organizations declared the same, moving the curiously bold organizations onto the next round of group presentations before the research team.
At one point, Heather recalls, the expected skeptical pair of raised eyebrows on Jim slowly wore off until he saw the stars aligning and declared, “This. This is it. I think we can do this.”
And soon, randomized controlled trials were set by dates and LEO was born. There were fireworks as everyone rode off into the sunset. Well, there’s more to the story of course, but any romantic analogy calls on a Disney reference before the real work gets underway.
I talked to a couple of people closest to the inception of the project to help in the telling of this great love story, and how it changed their projects for the better.
Cindy Casey, Director of Client Services at Catholic Charities Fort Worth (CCFW), heads up the Padua Program, one of LEO’s earliest randomized controlled trials. It’s the second study at CCFW next to Stay the Course, which looks at community college persistence rates. She calls the partnership the gold (tin?) standard.
In 2015, Cindy and her team were working the resources and brain power they had to help clients in the Padua Program, a strengths-based holistic case management program designed to walk with clients however long it took on their path out of poverty. But she was stuck on financial assistance in addressing scarcity. It made sense that by addressing the immediate financial burdens of a client, there would be room for more bandwidth to do the larger work. Net/Net: money spent meant success forthcoming.
But the clients weren’t achieving success. Thanks to LEO’s early involvement with the project, CCFW was inspired to create their own internal research and evaluation team. This is how they were able to discover that the clients who were given the most financial assistance were indeed the very ones worse off. And the clients who received the least, but were nevertheless engaged with the program, were faring the best.
Armed with this data, CCFW was able to create a strategic flexible financial assistance plan, whereby funding was generated in a dignified partnership between the client and the agency. A few tweaks to the model and today, one of the hallmarks of the successful program is this exact strategic flexible financial assistance.
When the formal research results came out later that year, Cindy held her breath. Like any good overthinker in a partnership, she braced for the worst, but it never came. Instead, they got incredible data on an opportunity to improve the lack of participation in client savings, which turned into strategic fuel to start working with clients earlier in the model on savings. It worked.
Cindy tears up remembering Bill carefully explaining to her team that they had taken the results to many an academic institution who challenged that there must be some kind of mistake. That these types of results were unheard of. It was that day she remembers Bill painting a picture of the magnitude of ripple effects a study like this could have, of the possibilities to change hundreds of thousands of lives, of the importance of the work being done by her team in that moment.
Cindy tells me that working with LEO and their own research team enables them to be able to ask questions and get to the root of an issue in real time. “There’s a huge difference,” she notes, “between what your perception is versus what is actually happening.”
Kathy Donahue Coia, former Acting CEO of Catholic Charities Chicago, entered into dialogue with me by speaking of a general hesitancy among the nonprofit world to introduce research. As social work is not for the faint of heart, the people who are on the ground with the clients hardly have a moment to think, let alone run numbers or look for overarching themes. But they do input data on clients every single day. So, by taking work that they were already doing and sending it to the right people (enter LEO), they added exactly zero expectations to their already hands-full staff.
As with so many of the best things in life, Kathy tells me that “research answered the questions they weren’t even asking.”
For example, by gathering data on the usage of their only-in-the-nation WIC grocery store model, LEO discovered a surprising bit of news: almost no teen mothers were using the program. Armed with this curious information about vulnerable clients leaving money on the table, Catholic Charities Chicago learned that only one of the twelve WIC grocery stores had a high teen utilization rate, and that was because it was bundled with other teen services located at the same center.
This was the genesis for the team to relocate more projects and services for teen moms into other WIC grocery stores in other neighborhoods. As Catholic Charities Chicago set out to make a larger footprint of accessible services near stores, sure enough, WIC coupon utilization for teens increased. An opportunity to increase teen participation was something that not only wouldn’t have been done before LEO, it would have been something not even on their radar.
“That’s what research has done for us,” Kathy tells me excitedly. “In this case, it helped us to completely redesign a program for maximum effectiveness.” In two other cases, LEO’s findings were able to help them verify that their work was effectively on the right track. One showed that they were indeed reducing hospital readmission rates based off their signature case management model. Another showed that a small investment of rental assistance did prevent homelessness and was useful in securing continued funding from the city of Chicago. By way of program redesign or program affirmation, her teams were equipped to move forward confidently in the right direction.
She also notes that “it doesn’t hurt your funding efforts to have a research partner in your proposal.”
Knowing well that successful partnerships hardly rest on the laurels of the past, I asked Heather about their plans for the future.
When she started, Heather was employee #12 with 30 projects or so under her purview and a budget of around 1M. A few flops, free falls, and victories later, a 36th team member just started to help with the 80+ projects and current working budget of 5.5M. Within eight years, they’ll have a portfolio of 300 sites she tells me.
As the mission states, they create evidence and put evidence to use. Her sights are set not just on the partner agencies and rich data they can mutually benefit from collecting, but change in national policy and understanding. When they prove out a models’ effectiveness, they can (and have) taken it to state legislatures to effect change. The more models proven, the more momentum. The more momentum, the more powerful the testimonies for various think tanks and governments. The more change in policy and understanding, the more they can help orchestrate connecting the largest funders to the most proven models in the country without having to recreate the wheel. It’s her version of a house and white picket fence.
Happy Anniversary indeed to LEO. To sharing in the great adventure of taking a risk, always staying curious, and never giving up. As the elderly couples holding hands on the sidewalk after decades of hard work promise, it will be worth it, and the best is yet to come. Cue the champagne. Cheers!