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Innovation and Startups Special Coverage

Celebrating Innovation

By Julie Rivers

The University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute (UMDI) turned 50 in 2021. It was a milestone, like many, that was marked in quiet fashion, and in this case, very quiet, because of the pandemic.

The actual celebration, in the form of an anniversary gala, came this year — May 3, to be precise. More than 150 people attended the event at the UMass Club in Boston, a gathering that offered UMDI and its supporters the long-awaited chance to reconnect, meet new people, and celebrate.

And there was, and is, much to celebrate.

Indeed, charged with social service, economic development, and community engagement, the Donahue Institute interfaces with many aspects of life in Massachusetts and beyond. In fact, UMDI has received global recognition for its economic research, program-evaluation capabilities, and workforce and educational initiatives.

Anticipating almost $25 million in revenues for fiscal year 2022, UMDI has about 175 employees with staff across the country, including all six New England states, Southern California, and Arizona. UMDI operates like a consulting firm, with 98% of its revenues being self-generated.

At the gala, recently appointed Executive Director Johan Uvin offered what amounted to a state-of-UMDI address, and in a Zoom call with BusinessWest that involved several leaders of the institute, he did the same, highlighting what’s changed over the years and, perhaps more importantly, what hasn’t for this vital resource.

“As someone coming in from the outside, this is a solid model — it’s not broken,” he said of the institute’s method of operation. “The Donahue Institute has the autonomy and intellectual freedom to pursue work that is meaningful to society but that also aligns with its mission and capabilities.”

Over the years, that work, has come in a variety of forms, including everything from housing to the national Census; economic data and ways to measure it, to office automation. And the institute’s work has often to led to changes in how things are done and how issues are addressed.

Johan Uvin addresses attendees

Johan Uvin addresses attendees at the recent gala marking the Donahue Institute’s 50th anniversary.

Slicing through it all, Mark Melnik, director of UMDI’s Economic and Public Policy Group, used terms not often applied to such an agency.

“We’re a dynamic organization, especially for a public-service institute,” he told BusinessWest. “While entrepreneurial mode can be exhausting, it allows us to push corners.”

This unique blend of public service and entrepreneurship provides the institute to recognize and seize what he called “opportunities that just make sense.”

For this issue and its focus on innovation, BusinessWest looks at these opportunities while reviewing the institute’s first 50 years of work and asking UMDI’s leaders what will likely come next.

 

History Lessons

In the beginning, the Donahue Institute focused on providing consulting services to state and local governments. Named for former president of the Massachusetts State Senate, the late Maurice A. Donahue, UMDI branched out in the mid-1980s by helping clients in the corporate and nonprofit sectors.

According to J. Lynn Griesemer, who served with UMDI for 31 years, including several as president, and still acts as a senior advisor, a breakthrough assignment in the early days of the institute was to assess how to most effectively introduce office automation into workplaces. While automation is incontrovertible today, back in the paper-laden manual task days of 1970s office life, the project was just one of many groundbreaking concepts the institute would help launch.

Another early assignment that would shape the future of the institute involved improving floor operations at the General Motors assembly plant in Framingham. However, while the project was underway, the plant began laying off shifts — but UMDI was already there as an implant that was well-positioned to lend a hand. Shifting focus, the institute helped the newly dislocated workers create resumes, get additional education, and ultimately find jobs or even start businesses of their own. Through this fortuitous timing, the institute quickly became the largest services provider to dislocated workers in the Commonwealth.

Donahue Institute

From left, former director of the Donahue Institute Eric Heller, former deputy director John Klenakis, former director Lynn Griesemer, Director Johan Uvin, and Associate Director Carol Anne McGowan

The federal government’s Department of Defense would then present the institute with an opportunity to help make systems uniform across military branches. This project allowed UMDI to develop the national credibility to successfully bid on the Head Start program, one of its core initiatives to this day.

From there, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld asked the UMass President’s Office to assist with an economic development initiative for the state. With the help of economic experts from across the UMass campus, UMDI worked with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston to forge the MassBenchmarks project. To this day, MassBenchmarks assesses the Massachusetts economy through reports and analyses that it then produces and releases twice per year in journal form.  

These early projects laid the groundwork for UMDI to get approved as a vendor by the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA). This designation allows the institute to bypass the lengthy bidding process usually required to win large federal contracts. 

Indeed, the institute’s keen eye for evaluating opportunities and strategically selecting those that will open doors has built the solid foundation it now stands on.

Today, the Donahue Institute is comprised of 10 business units. However, despite the ever-growing diversification of its core capabilities, a vibrant and robust research component remains at the backbone. This includes both UMDI’s Applied Research and Program Evaluation unit and its Economic and Public Policy Research group, led by Melnik.

This group operates as a project-oriented consulting firm, much like a think tank, bringing academic expertise and methods to real-world social problems. The group works with demographic, labor market, and economic data to help state and municipal governments, planning agencies, and nonprofits guide broad public policy discussions.

“Housing is the most central public policy question when we talk about Massachusetts.”

One current project examines how to leverage new apprenticeship models to minimize employee retention challenges. Another potentially groundbreaking study involves using data gathered for COVID-related purposes to develop new and more affordable ways of providing healthcare services to consumers instead of funneling people into highly complex systems that they have to navigate on their own.

A core assignment for Melnik’s group is its work with the Secretary of the Commonwealth preparing for census enumeration, which is the basis for federal funding allocation and congressional seats. With help from UMDI’s population- estimates program, the state’s census data is head of class in the nation. This is especially noteworthy since census data is relied upon heavily for resource allocations and predicting where jobs will be. It also informs decisions around population projections used by the MassDOT and Mass. School Building Authority for school district planning.

The group’s portfolio also includes a two-phase initiative with Way Finders that uses Greater Springfield as a case study on housing market affordability. With a focus on upward mobility and wealth creation, the study seeks to answer what it’s like for low- to moderate-income families to live in a high-cost state.

“Wages are so much lower in the Pioneer Valley that more than 54% of renters are housing cost-burdened,” Melnik says. Additionally, the majority of those burdened are people of color.

“Housing is the most central public policy question when we talk about Massachusetts,” he explains. This is because it tells the story needed to inform public policy, including the future of transportation.  

Another of the institute’s long-term projects is the Head Start program, which it has been involved with since 2003.

UMDI’s New England Head Start Training and Technical Assistance group is co-directed by Rosario Dominguez, M.P.A. Dominguez says that when people think of the Head Start program, early childhood education is often the only thing that comes to mind. However, that barely scratches the surface of what the program does, as it begins at pregnancy and continues to support families through college.

With this long-term intervention approach, the program addresses intergenerational poverty by using what goes on in the classroom as a lens for examining how families can reach their financial goals, ultimately strengthening entire communities. Through the partnerships it forms, the program has the reach to solve issues much larger in scale than early childhood development, including informing policies that move social equity and upward mobility forward by helping education and social service organizations improve their systems.  

Beyond its regional and national footprints, Ken LeBlond, Marketing Communications manager, said UMDI also handles international work. Funded by the United States Department of State, the institute has contributed to economic mobility at the global level since 2004.

This includes its exchange program in which groups of 20-30 people from about 60 countries, such as Argentina, Pakistan, and Eastern Europe, come to Western Massachusetts each summer. The groups travel the region engaging in active learning, helping at the Amherst food bank and senior center, and working on river cleanup projects.

 

A Look Ahead

In August 2021, the Donahue Institute welcomed Uvin as its executive director. Uvin had previously served as assistant secretary of Education under the Obama Administration. Working alongside Associate Director Carol Anne McGowan, Uvin holds the distinction of being the institute’s first executive director to be hired externally.

When asked what is ahead for UMDI, Uvin talked about alternative models for providing health care and exploring different educational models in challenged communities to lift entire neighborhoods through training and interventions.

Additionally, Uvin is interested in looking at both the supply and demand sides of regional economies to shape how employers and individuals work together to create wealth.

He explained that the engagement process might begin with going into neighborhoods and asking, ‘what are your aspirations?’ This is important because, according to Uvin, “we are moving headlong into a labor shortage with the babyboomers retiring,” making it critical to have intentional conversations around economic development across many different populations.

While this may be a current focus for UMDI, these issues are not new to the Pioneer Valley, where economists and policymakers have been wrestling with similar challenges for decades. Uvin says that while high-tech industry sectors have grown across the state, it has not been an equitable geographic or demographic spread, with Gateway cities such as Springfield and Holyoke — where nearly half of the region’s minority population lives — being left behind.

Part of Uvin’s vision for the future is to explore work in sectors such as life sciences, which play a key role in the success of Central Massachusetts’ biotech manufacturing and Greater Boston’s R&D and lab-based growth.

This, he says, would involve lifting up underserved communities, which is critical because, on the business side, there are simply not enough workers to grow unless we find ways to include all populations. Representation of people of color in the best-paying jobs of the higher-tech sectors lags severely. In terms of where UMDI is at this point in contributing to solving inequities that plague underserved populations, he says they are in the discovery phase, talking to others on the grassroots level.     

As for the future, the institute is positioned to make great strides. With an executive director from the outside, a new perspective brought on by the COVID pandemic, and an impressive 50 years of success to build from, the institute is at a nexus for bringing widespread change to the communities it serves.

“It’s an exciting time for reflection and renewal — to articulate what has happened, organically anyway, through the COVID crisis, which is the discourse around social equity and social mobility,” said Melnik. “This has been part of our work for a while now and has bubbled up even more.”

In reflecting upon how the institute has evolved over the past fifty years, Uvin and others said it is also important to highlight what hasn’t changed, especially the institute’s model and entrepreneurial approach to its work.

Dominguez adds that what was once called public service has evolved into economic mobility and social equity.

“Although we are further defining what we do, our core values will always be the same,” she said. “How can our work impact communities in need? That’s the core — and that won’t change.” 

Uvin concludes, “we’re not done evolving. COVID revealed what didn’t make sense, and business must respond.” Offering employee support, childcare, mental-health services, and other perks will be integral.

Perhaps what will carry the Donahue Institute forward another 50 years will be that which has stayed the same — a solid culture, a public service-focused mission, and the keen ability to find opportunities that align with core values while also having the potential to open doors.

Daily News

HADLEY — The second report of a multi-phase project studying Pioneer Valley housing issues was released yesterday by the UMass Donahue Institute, Way Finders, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, and the Metropolitan Springfield Housing Study Advisory Committee.

Phase 2 analyzed regional segregation and the important relationship between place and opportunity in area communities. The research also further examined the central role of affordable, accessible, quality housing in upward mobility and quality of life in the Greater Springfield region.

“Our analysis shows a regional housing market that is being increasingly inaccessible to people at various levels of income,” said Mark Melnik, director of Economic & Public Policy Research at the UMass Donahue Institute. “This was made worse by the pandemic and has important implications in terms of access to employment, services, and other critical amenities associated with place.”

Report highlights include:

• Affordability issues disproportionately impact the region when compared to the state. The Pioneer Valley has 10% of Massachusetts’ rental units but 15% of the state’s rent-income mismatch (when rental prices are higher than renters’ ability to afford them). Based on a calculation of income mismatch for rental housing, the region currently needs at least 17,000 more rental units at or below $500 a month. This is possible with federal and state funds flowing into the Pioneer Valley to help with recovery.

• The COVID-19 pandemic, along with being a public-health crisis that hit families and networks of frontline workers with elderly, immunocompromised, smoking, and diabetic members hardest, also dramatically worsened economic conditions for low-wage, service and marginal workers primarily through layoffs. Many of the workers who were laid off are people of color and women, who frequently bear the economic brunt of both layoffs and the markedly increased care needs of both children and ill family members.

• Housing prices were gradually rising before the pandemic, then rose dramatically (for both sales and rentals) during the pandemic due to limited housing stock and low-interest rates.

• Access to clean air, public transportation, high-scoring schools, nearby jobs, networks of people who are not in poverty, and high employer engagement (by hiring local residents) are some of the measurable critical amenities that make the specific place people live important to their chances in life. Economic and racial segregation in the Pioneer Valley could be addressed by a regional, coordinated, and intentional approach to housing production and supporting programs.

• Segregation exists both historically and in the present day in the Pioneer Valley. Housing costs, deficits, and regulations are reinforcing and continuing to perpetuate segregation across area communities. The approach of working regionally on cost and availability of housing were the primary solutions suggested to begin to change these trends.

• Rural, suburban, and urban areas face different pressing issues in housing development. Rural areas have high costs of adding infrastructure that isn’t yet present, while suburban areas often have restrictive zoning or other reasons limiting buildable lots, including neighbor resistance and being somewhat built out. Urban areas face high redevelopment costs for lots with existing structures and are sometimes more built out (fewer available lots with nothing on them). Thoughtful rural and urban development needs further political and monetary support to match demand and create possibilities where they are currently arising too slowly to cope with the natural growth and upkeep of the region.

Click here to read the full report.

“This Phase 2 study provides a richly detailed portrait of housing needs for communities large and small across our region, and a starting point for action,” said Keith Fairey, president and CEO of Way Finders and leader of the Metropolitan Springfield Housing Advisory Group. “With this data, we have a clear understanding of regional, cross-sector collaboration needed to make progress on these issues, and build a more accessible, affordable, and inclusive region for all our residents.”

Daily News

HADLEY — Johan Uvin was announced as the new executive director of the UMass Donahue Institute (UMDI). Uvin continues a strong career in public service at the local and federal levels, and will begin his new role on Aug. 1.

“His extensive leadership experience in public service at multiple levels of government and his work with the private sector are an excellent match to the mission and aspirations of the UMass Donahue Institute and the university,” said Mike Malone, UMass Amherst’s vice chancellor of Research and Engagement.

“Established in 1971,” Malone noted, “the UMass Donahue Institute addresses critical questions and develops innovative solutions to help organizations and agencies throughout the world from both the public and private sector meet challenges, measure success, and set goals. UMDI frequently collaborates with faculty and staff from all five UMass campuses, connecting the inquiry and insight of academia with the urgency and pragmatism of the business world.”

Uvin served at the U.S. Department of Education from 2009 to 2017 as senior policy advisor, then deputy assistant secretary, and later acting assistant secretary. At the Department of Education, he coordinated all strategy development for the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, with a staff of 80 and more than $1.7 billion in resources. He led policy development and implementation for adult education, career and technical education, community colleges, immigrant integration, and more.

From 2017 to 2020, he was president of the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, D.C. There, he facilitated and implemented Rise Up for Equity, the institute’s five-year strategic plan. He has since founded Strategy Advising, a consulting practice that provides strategic advising services in education, workforce development, educational technology startups, and nonprofit organizations.

Uvin earlier held various leadership positions with the Rhode Island Department of Education and with Commonwealth Corp. in Boston. He has also managed projects and programs in the Massachusetts Department of Education and a number of nonprofit organizations in Boston, Belgium, and Sierra Leone.

Uvin will succeed Eric Heller, the current executive director, who retires this week after more than 35 years at the Donahue Institute. Carol Anne McGowan, UMDI’s associate director, will serve as interim executive director until Aug. 1. She works closely with the executive director to develop and implement management strategies, systems, and practices across the institute, and is directly responsible for overseeing all fiscal and human-resource functions.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 57: March 22, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Mark Melnik, director of economic and public policy research at the UMass Donahue Institute in Amherst

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Mark Melnik, director of economic and public policy research at the UMass Donahue Institute in Amherst.  The two have a lively discussion about everything from recent data on how many people are leaving the state — and why — to the ongoing economic recovery, the shape it will take, and the many factors that will drive it. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

 

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Daily News

HADLEY — The UMass Donahue Institute has been awarded a new five-year, $6.5 million per year cooperative agreement to direct the Head Start National Center on Program Management and Fiscal Operations (NCPMFO), a role it has filled for the past five years under an earlier award. Under the new cooperative agreement, the institute will continue to work in collaboration with its partners: Family Health International 360, Zero to Three, and the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

NCPMFO will continue to disseminate clear, consistent guidance, materials, and trainings on Office of Head Start priorities for the development and implementation of sound management systems and strong internal controls in Head Start programs across the country. NCPMFO’s work addresses topics such as risk management, governance, data collection and analysis, budgeting, management of multiple funding sources, and leadership, including the annual Head Start Management Fellows Program conducted at UCLA.

NCPMFO’s work reaches approximately 1,700 grantees of Early Head Start and Head Start programs located in all states, including those programs serving American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and migrant and seasonal workers. NCPMFO is one of four national center cooperative agreements recently awarded. The others address early childhood development, teaching, and learning; early childhood health; behavioral health and safety; and parent, family, and community engagement.

“The UMass Donahue Institute is extremely proud of our longstanding relationship with this vital national program that is Head Start, including also serving as the regional training and technical assistance provider for New England for close to 20 years, work that was also recently re-awarded to us,” said Eric Heller, executive director of the UMass Donahue Institute. “We are thrilled to be selected once again to lead this national center and look forward to building upon the tremendous work our team has delivered during the past five years. Head Start programs, their staff, and families face tremendous challenges during the pandemic, and we are committed to supporting them in every way possible during these terribly challenging times.”

Daily News

HADLEY — The UMass Donahue Institute has been awarded a five-year, $14 million contract to provide training and technical assistance to Head Start and Early Head Start programs for all six New England states. The grants allows the institute to continue to work with local Head Start programs on their educational, health, and family services as well as management systems to strengthen their ability to serve children and their families.

Head Start and Early Head Start programs provide comprehensive services that support the development of children from birth to age 5, and their families, in centers, childcare partner locations, and their own homes. Early Head Start also provides services to pregnant women. Head Start and Early Head Start services include early learning, health, and family well-being.

The contract was awarded by the Office of Head Start in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Nationally, Head Start/Early Head Start is divided into 12 regions. UMass Donahue Institute will be the sole provider of training and technical assistance to Region 1, which includes Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. The institute was first awarded the New England training and technical assistance grant in 2003.

“We are honored to continue serving Head Start programs throughout New England,” said Eric Heller, executive director of the UMass Donahue Institute. “We have been the predominant provider of training and technical assistance to Head Start in this region for the past 17 years and continue to build on an outstanding reputation.”

Ruth-Ann Rasbold, UMass Donahue Institute’s regional Early Childhood manager, noted that “Head Start is such an essential set of services and supports for children and families. We are glad that we can remain a partner with New England Head Start programs as they continually improve their services.”

Added Rosario Dominguez, Training & Technical Assistance coordinator, “we are honored to continue to work with the Office of Head Start and New England Head Start programs in supporting families with young children, in our communities, to build strong foundations for achieving their goals and full potential.”

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