Tucked into the Institute for Social Research at the University of New Mexico is something called The New Mexico Evaluation Lab @ UNM. It is one way UNM supports social infrastructure in the local community.
Professor of Economics Melissa Binder directs the lab. “Every group that is trying to do something good now is being asked to demonstrate that they are actually doing what they think they are doing.” Non-profit corporations who want money from the government or from foundations are now being asked to put their passion into a spreadsheet. Binder and her students help them do it.
During the spring semester ten students worked with five New Mexico non-profits. With help from a startup grant from the Kellogg Foundation, Binder brought researchers and analysts from other parts of the university into the lab to mentor graduate and undergraduate students as they worked out evaluation tools for the non-profits.
PB&J Family Services is one of them. Susannah Burke is executive director. “They’ve given us hope about how the programs are working,” she said. PB&J works with families that have one or more parents who are or have been incarcerated; with families that struggle with drug abuse or domestic violence; or with financial and housing problems and they try to help them sort out their many and overlapping problems. It’s difficult to put progress on paper.
Binder and her students helped PB&J analyze data that staff were already collecting on families on everything from housing stability to personal hygiene. By comparing these family “snapshots” at the beginning and end of the program, the non-profit can now measure whether parents are becoming more self-sufficient and better able to care for the children.
“Now when we talk about what we are doing with funding agencies, we can show them data,“ said Burke.
Binder finds that students are interested in doing practical policy research, and she would like to expand the program so that they can work with 20 to 30 organizations on an ongoing basis. She knows there is a need. With the Kellogg money she is able to give students who are admitted to the program small stipends for the two semester course.
Binder says this is an unusually satisfying course to teach. “It’s like nothing else that I’ve ever taught, because there is someone who is really eager to see what we come up with and we really want to give them a useful product.”
This year the Evaluation Lab put on a workshop that brought the students and the different non-profit organizations together to compare notes. It gave them a chance to learn from each other. One of the most important lessons is how to determine what is really important in an organizations day-to-day activities, and what is not.
“Nobody wants to stop what they are doing and evaluate,” said Binder. “But this is a really important way to keep an organization moving forward.”