President and Chief Executive Officer
Leah remembers nearly all of her nineteen years of formal education with great affection. She proudly tells local friends that she is a Saint Paul native who attended Webster, Ramsey and Central High—and occasionally runs into other Minutemen in unexpected places. At Macalester, Leah studied urban studies and history, and began developing her love of research methods. She was lucky to have support from faculty and staff at the Humphrey Institute of Public Policy at the University of Minnesota to develop her own concentration in evaluation, analysis and research methods, and developed her first several evaluations as a graduate student, including an evaluation design for the Humphrey’s annual mentoring program.
Leah’s first professional job was as a counselor in the State of Florida’s foster care system; she helped children, along with their biological and foster families, find stability and hope in trying circumstances. The number of children in foster care peaked in Florida in 1999 and 2000, just after Leah left the department. The work touched her greatly, and she has sustained a commitment to helping young people ever since by ensuring programs that serve them are doing it effectively. She left to coordinate a mentoring program for middle school students; coordinating meant wearing all of the hats of the program (planning, recruiting, screening, matching, training, sustaining, and even driving a 16-seat van). When asked to demonstrate outcomes for the U.S. Department of Justice grant that funded the program, Leah had her first taste of evaluation.
When not working, Leah can usually be found cooking, eating, grocery shopping, or doing a number of other food-related things. Although she keeps telling her kids that someday they’ll brag that their mom always made macaroni and cheese from scratch, they still often ask for the blue box… she’s sure eventually they will be foodies too, though! Her specialties are challah, pizza, and a killer pot roast.
Most of our clients comment that evaluation and strategic planning seem to come naturally to Leah, and that she makes it look easy. Over the years, Leah has specialized in finding creative ways to answer questions. For example, when a neighborhood organization wanted to find new ways to engage their community, Leah suggested a “convenience sampling” approach – pick a few nice afternoons when people would be out running errands and at the park, and approach every fifth person with three short questions about community involvement. When staff of local high school were resistant to evaluation because they associated it with performance measurement, Leah engaged them in brainstorming their biggest questions about their own performance – what they would like answers to when planning curriculum and lessons. When another regional organization worried that they weren’t getting the message out about all of the great work they do, Leah suggested that they take one great finding from their evaluation and have every staff person attach that fact to their email signature – reaching thousands of people every day with their message.
Since 2000, Leah has worked on over 100 evaluations, strategic plans and original research projects. She has worked with small school districts in rural Minnesota, large urban organizations like the Minneapolis Urban League, and a number of nonprofit and public agencies. She most enjoys helping organizations internalize strategic and data-driven processes. Recently, one of her earliest clients, La Oportunidad, mentioned that they continue to use the tools she helped them to develop.
Senior Research Analyst
Danielle Dryke joined the Improve Group as a Research Analyst in August 2008 after spending the previous five years living and working abroad. A Minnesota native, she graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College with a double major in Business Management and Communication Studies. After studying abroad in Denmark and completing several work trips to developing countries in the Caribbean, she joined the Peace Corps which brought her to Mali in West Africa. The following three years would incite a passion for research within her, and a desire to learn more about the impacts of service programming. Danielle earned her Master’s of Science degree from the University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands. She has since conducted research in the United States, Mali and the Netherlands as a consultant.
Danielle speaks French, Bambara and basic Malinke. In her spare time, Danielle enjoys being a Pampered Chef consultant, salsa dancing, playing the violin, cooking and spending time with friends. She also volunteers with a local Girl Scout Daisy troop and is active in her church.
Since starting with the Improve Group, Danielle has conducted analysis in conjunction with numerous projects including the DHS Waiver Review Initiative, Department of Correction’s NetWork for Better Futures evaluation, Hispanic Scholarship Fund University Alliance, Performing Arts Workshop ARISE, Dove / Girl Scouts of America Uniquely Me! and the Minnesota State Arts Board statewide needs assessment.
Danielle has expertise in multiple aspects of evaluation work, including
Report writing: In 2007, Danielle conducted research and wrote reports for USAID and CARE exploring the relationship between barriers to the use of family planning by Malian women and an initiative combining saving and lending groups with education and increased access to products.
Additionally Danielle wrote components of a situational analysis for UNICEF, UNAIDS, UNFPA in 2008 on HIV/AIDS and youth in Mali to guide programming initiatives and to assist in the development of a strategic plan to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Quantitative, qualitative or mixed data analysis: Danielle has completed qualitative research and analysis for a number of organizations including: USAID, CARE, UNICEF, UNAIDS, UNFPA, Hispanic Scholarship Fund University Alliance, and Department of Corrections Life Skills project.
Danielle has completed quantitative research and analysis for projects including Performing Arts Workshop ARISE and Dove /Girl Scouts of America Uniquely Me! to demonstrate the impact of programs on students and young women.
Her work on the Minnesota State Arts Board needs assessment used mixed-methods analysis to support and increase understanding of the needs of Minnesota residents with regard to arts programming and support.
Data collection methods: Innovative survey design, focus group design, interviews, etc.: While working with USAID and CARE Danielle designed focus group and interview protocols to delve into the barriers and perceptions of family planning with rural Malian women, men and religious leaders (a particularly sensitive group).
Working with large databases and relational databases: As a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2006, Danielle built an Access database for the housing cooperative she was working with to protect sensitive client data and worked with computer programmers to specify organizational needs and create a software program, trained the employees and supervised the implementation of the new program.
Stacy Johnson moved to the Twin Cities area after graduating from Luther College with a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and Management. After volunteering a year of her time with the national service program AmeriCorps VISTA, she worked several years coordinating programs for a statewide non-profit organization that provides literacy services to adults, children, volunteersand community programs in Minnesota. Stacy received her Master of Arts in Educational Policy and Administration with emphasis in Evaluation Studies from the University of Minnesota and she is currently pursuing a doctorate in Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development with an emphasis in Evaluation Studies. Prior to joining the Improve Group, Stacy worked on a large, multi-project evaluation of early childhood development programs throughout the state of Minnesota as well as an evaluation of a district wide education initiative.
In her free time, Stacy enjoys exploring all that the Twin Cities has to offer as well as discovering new places and activities either in her own Minnesota backyard or in destinations further away. She likes to spend her time doing outdoor activities, playing sports, spending time with friends, cooking new recipes, and reading. She also volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters and likes trying new activities with her little sister.
Avigya Karki recently joined The Improve Group as a Research Analyst. Simultaneously he is pursuing is doctorate in Evaluation Studies to specialize in participatory evaluation at University of Minnesota. He has experience working on diverse types of project in OECD countries as well as developing countries. His works have mostly concentrated on academia and international development sector. He started his pursuit of knowledge with first getting a Diploma in Computer Studies from LES-University of Cambridge. Then he attained his Bachelors of Arts from University of Minnesota majoring in Global Studies with a focus on Environment and Sustainable development. During his educational journey he has been involved in numerous research projects assisting professors as a research assistant as well as sharing the knowledge gained by assisting in teaching classes. To nurture his passion to work in the development sector he attained a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at University of Minnesota. After working as an independent consultant in various projects in different parts of the world he realized his passion for program evaluation and returned home to Twin-Cities and beloved University of Minnesota to learn from the leaders in the field of evaluation studies.
In his spare time, Avigya enjoys cooking and learning to cook world cuisine, dancing Ballroom and Latin dances, playing football (soccer) and watching the game in a pub with friends, and taking road trips with friends and family. He is an active member in community promoting internationalization of education and creating awareness of the world far from our community with involvement in various nonprofit organizations. He currently serves as an active member of Minnesota International Center board of directors. “It is interesting to look at the way in which definitions can shape policy and how practice can influence definitions and policy”, keeping this in mind Avigya is working to make a better community and then the world.
Research and Evaluation Director
Elizabeth Radel Freeman came to the Improve Group in June 2006 with a background of health research and evaluation. Since 2006, Liz has reported on key qualitative and quantitative findings for each of the 45 sites of the DHS Waiver Review Initiative. The concise summaries are used by each site to create an action plan for program improvement.
Liz holds a Masters in Public Health in Maternal and Child Health from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from American University in Washington, DC. Liz has been trained as a focus group facilitator. Before joining the Improve Group, Liz worked as a health coach in an employee wellness program, helping people to lose weight and quit smoking. Liz also has extensive experience working with adults with developmental and physical disabilities.
Liz has a passion for organic living and loves making “whole foods” from scratch. Liz also enjoys experiencing new places and visiting friends and family near and far. In the past few years, she’s spent time with loved ones in the Pacific Northwest, Washington, DC, China and England. Liz also spends her free time reading for her book club, serving on her congregation’s Emergency Preparedness Committee and spoiling her two cats.
Liz uses her evaluation skills to assist a broad range of clients with diverse programs and initiatives. Her areas of expertise include
Statistical analysis: Liz conducted complex statistical analyses for the ARISE project in 2008 to examine the impact of an artist residency program on outcomes for students with special needs. In 2005, Liz analyzed complex national data sets for the use the Minnesota Department of Health.
Survey design: In 2008, Liz designed survey and interview instruments for vulnerable populations, including former prisoners and residents living in supported housing. Liz worked closely with involved stakeholders to ensure the instruments were sensitive to the needs of these populations.
Data collection, analysis and reporting: As Research Manager, Liz successfully coordinated data collection, analysis and reporting for the ARISE and Safe Haven projects in 2008 that resulted in timely and informative reports to funders. In the ARISE project, she developed an incentive that garnered higher return rates for consent forms.
Liz developed instruments and collected data for the Department of Correction’s NetWork for Better Futures evaluation. She also created a tool to help partners communicate more effectively in the Department of Corrections Life Skills project.
An experienced report writer, Liz has reported on key qualitative and quantitative findings for each of the 45 sites of the DHS Waiver Review Initiative since 2006. The concise summaries are used by each site to create an action plan for program improvement.
Evaluation of arts programs: Through working extensively with the Performing Arts Workshop and Montalvo Arts Center to evaluate their arts education programs her work has shown how arts education programs have affected elementary and high school students.
Evaluation of health programs: With a background in health research, Liz is especially drawn to project that evaluation the impact of health programs. Liz has spent a great deal of her time at the Improve Group working on the Department of Human Services Waiver Review Initiative. This initiative examines how health programs work to keep people in community settings instead of institutions.
Presentations: In 2008, Liz presented findings from the Performing Arts Workshop’s ARISE project to the organization’s Board of Directors and a cohort of artists. The presentations helped inform these groups of project successes and areas for improvement in the coming year.
Samantha joined the Improve Group staff in July 2008 bringing experience in non-profit management and administration, marketing and community relations and volunteer program development. She has enjoyed her new challenges at the Improve Group and recently updated current systems at IG to more effectively gather and analyze financial and time data.
Samantha holds a bachelors degree in Social Work from the University of Arkansas. Her areas of experience are child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence. In previous work experience she co-developed Child Abuse/Sexual Assault Unit in the Prosecuting Attorneys office in Fayetteville, Arkansas, which included a multi-disciplinary approach to victim advocacy and an engaged law enforcement, victim advocates, educational institutions and judicial system to implement the Victim/Witness program. From direct service to administration, non-profit work has been rewarding, challenging and personally impactful. It has lead to a commitment of time to various local organizations and efforts.
Ms. Hagel enjoys being the owner of a small business in White Bear Lake, MN. For leisure time travel, cooking and knitting are favorite pastimes, with travel topping the list. "Japan and Germany are among my favorite trips, but the Pacific Northwest is where my heart is and I return as often as possible." Originally from Alaska, she lives in Hugo with her husband and 4 children.
Research and Evaluation Director
Deborah Mattila is a St. Paul, Minnesota native now living across the river in Minneapolis. She has been working with her sister, Improve Group president Leah Goldstein Moses, since 2003. Their close personal relationship has translated into a strong professional partnership, allowing Deborah to learn from Ms. Goldstein Moses’ expertise in the evaluation and planning field, and apply hands-on learning experiences to her role as Research Manager for the Improve Group. Deborah majored in Geography at the University of Minnesota, where she earned her Bachelors of Arts degree; she has also had coursework in library and information Science.
Deborah has a passion for making data and information accessible and easily understandable for people and organizations. Her coursework in cartography has given Deborah a keen eye for the best use of graphic design in creating informative simple or complex charts and graphs. Deborah enjoys designing graphic representation of information that clients can use to share their successes with stakeholders and lobby for additional support. Her coursework in library and information science has given Deborah an excitement for database managing and reference. She enjoys organizing complex program data into user-friendly databases and synthesizing multifaceted information for improved comprehension.
Deborah Mattila has proven expertise in:
Report writing: Deborah has prepared summary briefs, executive summaries, graphic summaries and final evaluation projects for clients and a variety of stakeholders. She takes care in providing information that is useful to multiple audiences with each report of findings.
Quantitative, qualitative or mixed data analysis: Deborah has conducted quantitative, qualitative and mixed-method data analysis for clients, including quasi-experimental (comparison group) studies.
Survey design: Deborah has extensive experience in making web and paper surveys that give participants a straightforward and even enjoyable evaluation experience, providing feedback on the programs in which they are involved in. She has designed surveys for use by elementary, middle and high school students, young adults, educators and other professionals in the fields of education, mentoring and the arts.
Project management: Deborah has been managing evaluation projects for the Improve Group since 2004. As of January 2009, she managed eight primarily multi-year evaluation projects. Clients have included non-profits, state and local government agencies, university partners and school districts.
Research and evaluation in specific topics, etc.: Deborah has managed and performed evaluation activities on projects that focus on public education, higher education, arts in education, arts resources, non-profit organization, teacher education, housing, mentoring, and immigration.
Presentations by Deborah:
Executive and Marketing Assistant
If there is one thing Susan Murphy has learned it's that life has a way of bringing you to places you of which never dreamed. Susan is the Executive and Marketing Assistant at the Improve Group where her education and life experience to bring just the right balance of skills to this position. After college she began her career as an actress and tour manager traveling the country. “I find that my experience as a student of theater arts has given me a unique understanding of what motivates and inspires people." She has also worked in the arts and non-profit service organizations learning grant writing, office management, project management, fundraising, marketing and volunteer management. “All these paths led me to the Improve Group.”
Susan Murphy’s organizational and support skills help the Improve Group acquire new projects, communicate to clients, keep to schedules and provide careful assistance with data collection, reporting and other facets of evaluation work. She produces the monthly newsletter, e-news, and manages the company website and blog along with assisting Leah and the Project Managers on various client work. Since joining the Improve Group in 2005, Ms. Murphy has taken instruction in evaluation, focus group facilitation, Institutional Review Boards, time management and computer software applications. She attends the Minnesota Evaluation Studies Institute and American Evaluation Association Conferences to learn current methods and tools used in evaluation.
Susan has a Bachelor of Science in Theater Arts with a minor in English studies from the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. "Acting is a very inclusionary occupation. I have had the privilege of collaborating with great people from diverse communities. This is a skill that is important in evaluation work.”
Two evaluation projects have been extraordinary to Susan: The 20 years of Arts in Basic Curriculum (ABC) in South Carolina Schools and the ARISE project of the Performing Arts Workshop of San Francisco. “For ABC I had the privilege of interviewing many of the key players throughout the twenty-year history of this amazing project. I spoke with a State Legislator, people from the Arts Commission, the State Department of Education, Deans of Universities, dance, theater and visual arts educators and more. Their insights on collaboration and succession planning for future program sustainability were inspirational.”
Susan worked closely with Project manager, Deborah Mattila, and the Performing Arts Workshop to create an innovative residency observation tool and student drawing analysis tool for the Arts Residency Interventions in Special Education (ARISE) Project of The Workshop works to enhance special education California schools. This multi-year project brings artists into classrooms of students with disabilities to increase academic ability by using the arts in special education programs.
Having two school-aged sons who challenge her to Wii competitions helps pass the long winter days here in Minnesota. Susan prefers summer activities like travel, swimming, tennis and a mean game of badminton. An avid reader and blogger, she enjoys learning about history and architecture. She has been a past volunteer gangster tour guide for the Landmark Center in Saint Paul. Currently co-president of the Murray Junior High, she also volunteers for Art Adventures with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
David Rothstein has a background in teaching and technical writing. A former associate professor of English, David taught writing courses, nineteenth-century British literature and general literature courses. He also served as Assessment Coordinator for his department at St. John’s University. Other academic experience includes technical writing and academic advising for Capella University in Minneapolis. As director of membership development and fundraising for a non-profit conservation organization, he also wrote grants, articles, and marketing materials.
David holds a PhD in English from the University of Minnesota and a BA in English from St. John’s University, MN. He is also a certified spiritual director with the Loyola Spirituality Center in St. Paul. His other interests include outdoor activities with the Minnesota Rovers outdoors club (camping, biking, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, skiing), gardening, cooking, and the arts.
As proposal writer for the Improve Group, David has worked on a variety of projects related to education, the arts, health and human services. He has learned that research and evaluation is at best a well-coordinated, collaborative dance between evaluator and client, and it begins with the client preparing a good RFP! When an organization is clear about its passions and needs for a program, it can better articulate the goals for the program, its hopes and dreams for that program, the stakeholders involved and their needs, the questions it has for the future of that program. With these understandings, the organization has already begun the evaluation process. It can then present this information in a clearly structured RFP, which helps the evaluator present the right tools and a thorough approach to continue the process of discovery and improvement.
Research and Evaluation Director
Becky Stewart received a BA from Macalester College, a mini-MBA in non-profit management from the University of St. Thomas, and a Master’s in Public Policy, with a concentration in community and economic development, from the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. Prior to joining the Improve Group, Ms Stewart worked for a community development organization where she worked in fundraising, real estate development, program development and public policy.
Becky Stewart has been a project manager for over 12 years. While with the Improve Group, she has managed seventeen projects that focus on education, arts in education, arts, collaboration, affordable housing, spiritual direction, youth, corrections and transportation. Projects have included evaluation system design, program evaluation, strategic planning, needs assessment and technical writing. Clients have included school districts, state government and local and national non-profits.
Becky has multiple expertise areas, including
Report writing: Becky has prepared a variety of reporting documents for many audiences while at the Improve Group. Report formats have included full technical reports for organizations or their funders, short summary reports for specific groups of internal or external stakeholders, case studies, newsletter articles, brochures, talking points and presentations. Reports consolidate findings from all data collection, including qualitative and quantitative methods, to present a cohesive understanding of program accomplishments and areas for improvement. In addition, the report format and content responds to the particular communication needs and priorities of the targeted audience.
Quantitative, qualitative or mixed data analysis: Becky has conducted data collection and analysis in projects that have included qualitative analysis, quantitative analysis and a mixture of the two. She primarily uses thematic analysis in qualitative analysis, and has worked with large qualitative data sets. Quantitative analysis methods have included those to identify differences between groups and change over time. Becky places particular emphasis on presenting cohesive findings based on data from both qualitative and quantitative methods in projects using a mixed-method approach.
Survey design: In addition to traditional web- and paper-based survey design, Becky has also worked with innovative survey methods designed to make surveys accessible to groups of limited or mixed literacy levels. She worked with pictorial diaries in a volunteer project in India and has created pictorial instruments for an evaluation system for a local non-profit.
Multi-site projects: Becky has managed four major multi-site projects while with the Improve Group. Considerations in such projects include understanding program implementation differences, identifying particular data collection opportunities and challenges, managing logistics and building staff relationships across sites. In addition, analysis and reporting should investigate differences between sites and use any significant local context and circumstances to frame findings. She says, “I love the challenge of thinking about how large projects that aim to have a broad impact really work in local communities. I think program responsiveness to the local context and opportunities is so important, while at the same time these communities can benefit from the resources and proven approaches of larger scale programs. I like learning more about that tension and balance with these projects.”
Partners: Becky has managed three major evaluation projects where a program was run in partnership. Considerations in such projects include: understanding each partner’s evaluation priorities and needs, creating a logic model that clearly outlines goals and indicators of success and working closely with staff in each organization to ensure data requests are timely and not overly cumbersome.
Engaging stakeholders from diverse constituencies / diverse communities: Becky has engaged stakeholders from diverse races and ethnicities, cultures, languages, religions and economic circumstances. Success in such projects starts with listening closely to staff and participant perspectives on the project and concerns about participation. Flexibility and creativity in designing data collection tools and methods is also critical. Finally, ensuring that all participants are clear about the purpose and use of the data they will be sharing helps participants feel valued and keeps the project accountable to these stakeholders.
Presentations by Becky:
Senior Research Analyst
Eric Wong has performed analysis on the behalf of private companies, nonprofit organizations and government agencies. He brings experience in research and evaluation across multiple areas, including education, labor policy and tax policy. His accomplishments include an evaluation on need-based financial aid on the academic progress of low- to middle income college students and projecting revenue losses for the Minnesota Department of Revenue’s 2006 Tax Expenditure Budget. He says, “Working with data can provide so much insight on addressing problems of our clients and working with clients on addressing those problems is always and enlightening learning experience.”
Eric holds a Masters in Public Policy degree from the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Carleton College. Mr. Wong is expanding his education through his current pursuit of a Masters of Business Administration at the Carlson School of Business.
Eric’s project experience with the Improve Group includes his extensive work evaluating Medicare waiver programs for the Minnesota Department of Human Services Waiver Initiative; work on school behavioral programs for the Safe Schools/healthy Students Federal Grant projects; and, Hispanic Scholarship Fund minority college student academic progress analysis.
Mr. Wong’s list of skills and project experiences include
Report writing: He has written over 45 reports regarding county-based administration of the DHS Home-Based Community Services (HCBS) waiver programs. These reports have led to more effective and efficient delivery of HCBS waivers. In addition, he has written dozens of reports regarding school behavioral programs. The reports have detailed the effectiveness of school activities and programs that aim to improve childhood behavior regarding destructive behaviors.
Quantitative, qualitative or mixed data analysis: Eric conducted complex statistical analyses for the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, the Minnesota DHS Waiver Review Initiative, Stephen-Argyle SS/HS and Nonprofit Assistance Fund. For the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and the DHS Waiver Review Initiative he has experience collecting data from large integrated databases. Qualitative data collection has been his focus in group meetings and interviews for the Department of Corrections, the White Earth Tribal Courts and the DHS Waiver Review Initiative.
Data collection methods: Innovative survey design, focus group design, interviews: Eric created surveys and interview protocols in analysis of needs-based scholarships on academic progress for the Wallin Foundation and Morning Foundation (grad school project).
Working with large databases / relational databases: He designed an Access-based data collection and analysis tool for the DHS Waiver Review Initiative. This tool has significantly assisted DHS in monitoring and improving the administration of HCBS waiver programs. Additionally, Eric has developed data collection tools to collect data for educational and public safety projects.
Eric enjoys the opportunity to do research and evaluation with a wide variety of organizations serving the public through educations, corrections, the arts, health and more. For example, in the Department of Corrections Life Skills project he evaluated the effectiveness of the Life Skills program in assisting offenders in assimilating back into open society and conducted interviews and observed classes in gaining qualitative data for this evaluation. For another Department of Corrections initiative, the Network project, he evaluated the effectiveness of the High-Risk Demonstration Project in providing and/or arranging access to services related to housing, employment, behavioral health, health care, and community and family re-engagement, collected data and provided analysis.
On the personal side, Eric has volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and supports Lutheran Social Services of MN and Lutheran World Relief. His other interests include personal finance planning, reading biographies and assisting his parents at their restaurant, Golden Inn, in Superior, WI.
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