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Santiago is Vice President of Evaluation & Learning at Catalyst Miami, overseeing evaluation for 30+ programs supporting Miami’s low-income residents.

“We’re not talking about iterating just for the sake of iterating.

We’re not talking about creating busy work.

We’re not talking about creating questions or problems where they don’t exist.

Really, we’re talking, just like many non-profits around the world, we’re talking about people’s lives.”

 

Catalyst Miami supports metro Miami’s 2.7 million residents to improve their health and financial security, become leaders in their communities, and build power and impact.  In Miami, 20% of all residents live below the poverty line (1), and about 2/3 are “liquid asset” poor, meaning they do not have enough savings to live above the poverty line for three months if they lose a job, face a medical crisis or suffer an emergency that leaves them without a steady income (2).  Catalyst Miami runs over 30 programs, like financial coaching, climate resilience education and leadership, and constituent trips to Florida’s capital during legislative session, to combat these issues.  It’s Santiago’s job to figure out what impact actually means, how to measure it, and how to use that measurement to further support the organization’s work.

“How do we show the aggregated impact of our work?  It’s one thing to create a journey map of how an individual could walk through Catalyst Miami’s programs and services, but then the other question is ‘what’s a meaningful change in somebody’s life as a result of this program and how do we aggregate that?’  [It] could be getting your credit score up to 650, which gets you access to different levels of capital and interest rates, having one or three months worth of savings in a savings account, speaking at a county commission meeting, voting in a local election, getting enrolled in health insurance, or re-enrolling in health insurance.”

Throughout our chat it’s clear there are two things that are of particular focus and intrigue to Santiago in this endeavor.  The first is how one can begin to define the impact of the work and actually measure it, what he calls “Milestone Moments”.  The second is the role that behavioral economics, in particular our understanding of the impact of scarcity on people’s thoughts and activities, can have on improving results.

“There are moments of scarcity for the brain, and moments of abundance.  What does that mean for our work? If we know that we’re trying to change financial capability and outcomes, that’s behavior change.  There’s a whole systemic aspect to financial capability but on the individual level there are practices and disciplines that promote savings and asset-building.  One of the data pieces we’ll be exploring is when people get paid, and how frequently they’re getting paid.  If they get paid on the first of the month, we know that we should send [program participants] a reminder to save on the third or the fourth.  Then they’re not worried about putting food on the table, they’ve got some bandwidth that they can work with.  So we can time nudges to encourage people to save.”

It’s rare, and delightful, to meet somebody who expresses genuine excitement about these two particular things with no hint of bitterness towards the less glamorous, stickier sides of evaluation work.  Being excited about both implementing impact evaluation systems and nudge theory is the analytic equivalent of being excited about both broccoli and birthday cake.  One has to be done to keep the lights on, the other is an intellectual treat, the cool stuff that everybody wants to do.  Every step of the process has it’s own intrigue and pratfalls – procuring resources, consensus on metrics, rolling out and advocating for the use of collection systems, actually collecting data, changing culture, among others – though recognizing the importance of each, and being excited by it all is a real asset in this work.  Maybe as great as actually liking broccoli.  Maybe.

 

This article originally appeared in Analyst of America.