Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Notre Dame’s anti-poverty research lab to work with Atlanta nonprofits

By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Editor | Published July 12, 2021

ATLANTA—How can a nonprofit know its work to raise people from poverty is really making a difference?

Turns out there’s a science to it.

The Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) at the University of Notre Dame is launching a partnership in the Atlanta community to help organizations working with the poor to measure impact by using scientific evaluation methods.

LEO pairs top researchers with leaders in the social services sector to conduct impact evaluations to identify innovative, effective and scalable programs and policies that help people move permanently out of poverty. The lab uses a cohort model to train groups of organizations in impact evaluations and then works closely with them to design, launch and share what they’ve learned during the research.

LEO’s Atlanta project is the first city-based cohort in the organization’s history and will be launched in November, with potential organizations being selected through August. The research is conducted free of charge.

Heather Reynolds, LEO’s managing director, previously served as CEO of Catholic Charities Fort Worth for 14 years. The goal of LEO is to help nonprofits in proving their models, said Reynolds.

“It’s about the power of what the numbers and the analytics can do,” she said.

It’s no longer enough to just want to help people and have good intentions, but to know through research that the efforts to solve poverty are working.

“I think that faith and reason coexist and this is just a beautiful manifestation of that,” she said of LEO’s studies.

Two economics professors at Notre Dame founded the research program that looks at poverty from different angles such as housing or education.

Catholic Charities Atlanta is well into a multi-year cohort study with LEO to answer the research question “Does emergency financial assistance improve housing and financial stability for veterans?”

Vanessa Russell, CEO of Catholic Charities Atlanta, said that organizations interested in participating should understand what they are trying to measure and “want to elevate their services.”

CCA decided to hone in on its Veterans Emergency Financial Assistance program, which was formalized about six years ago, but is not as established as the other services the agency provides.

“We don’t want to just give a hand-out,” said Russell. “We’re going for a more transformative service.”

The program was developed to help Georgia veterans overcome immediate crises on the path to civilian life. Eligible veterans can receive up to $700 for rent or utility payments to help them stay in their homes. The program includes case management services for assistance with budgeting household finances and accessing resources to address other needs. Case managers check in with clients 30, 60 and 90 days after they receive services to monitor their stability.

The evaluation of Catholic Charities Atlanta’s EFA program is a randomized controlled trial. At the conclusion of the study, researchers will compare the housing stability, financial stability, health and employment outcomes of the veterans who received emergency funding with those who did not.

Russell said it’s a data-driven, rigorous process but will be worth it to test if they are on the right path.

“When you are stewards of support that comes from the community, you have a responsibility,” she said.

LEO’s Atlanta cohort is spearheaded locally by Ed Fisher, a 1983 Notre Dame graduate and founder and managing partner of SouthPointe Ventures. Ed and his wife, Lori, are backing the initiative. They are parishioners of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta.

“LEO’s vision for using evidence to alleviate poverty immediately resonated with us, and we see how a service organization’s participation in a cohort leads to very real, tangible improvements in people’s lives,” he said. “LEO provides a unique combination of world-class research with on-the-ground action to fight poverty. My family believes we are called to improve others’ lives, and LEO allows us to participate in lifting people out of poverty in a very real way.”

Following the early November workshop, Atlanta groups will work with LEO’s research team for 16 weeks to design a study of their interventions. The research design process culminates in a second workshop in spring 2022 where organizations present their research study designs to an audience of academics, philanthropists and poverty thought leaders.

Leigh Lynes, project manager with LEO, said organizations interested should have a “culture of innovation.” Lynes added that the lab program likes to study things that have never been studied before to “advance the body of knowledge.”