Monday, October 22, 2018

Serving Distressed Individuals: Fabulous Talk by Professor Priyank Arora on Assisting Nonprofits in Decision-Making

Last Friday we had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Priyank Arora, our newest Operations and Information Management colleague at the Isenberg School, speak in our UMass Amherst INFORMS Speaker Series. His talk was entitled: Serving Distressed Individuals: Balancing Advisory and Delivery Efforts in Nonprofits. This series in organized by the UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter, which I have had the pleasure of serving as the Faculty Advisor of, since its inception in 2004.

The audience consisted of faculty and students from the Isenberg School, the UMass Amherst College of Engineering, as well as several representatives from the nonprofit community. This was the first talk in our Speaker Series of the new academic year and we were all very much looking forward to it! I had the pleasure of welcoming the audience and also introducing the new roster of UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter Officers.  This student chapter will be recognized with its 12th consecutive national award from its parent society, INFORMS at the Phoenix conference next month.
The new Chapter President, Katerina Deliali, then made the formal introduction of our speaker.
Professor Arora began his lecture with an overview of his research interests and showed us the United Nations' goals. I very much like that he said that, when in comes to social and environmental decision-making, "everyone needs to do their part."  He became interested in assisting nonprofits via modeling and enhanced decision-making through a nonprofit in Houston, Daya, which serves South Asian families in crises. The nonprofit began with handling 10 telephone calls a month and now responds to 6,000 calls a year. He noted that there are different complex needs of the clients and different services required, both of which may be challenging to determine. He was particularly interested in teasing out the operational challenges. He also discussed another nonprofit - Georgia Works, which serves homeless males in Georgia and tries to get them work. Organizations have to serve in an interpretive role as to what their clients need and are severely resource constrained.
He considers the objective function to be: to maximize the societal impact, and his model(s) investigate the trade-offs between advisory and service delivery under resource constraints.  I very much liked that he emphasized that it is not a matter of product delivery, as would be the case in certain disaster relief situations and other nonprofit applications,  but it is a matter of quantifying the effort in terms of different services - where should the effort be placed? He quoted Mr. Bill McGahan of Georgia Works as saying: "Each client is a mystery. Intake process is crucial to help figuring out details later on." He discussed an analytical model in which there are two types of clients and two types of services. His analyses strongly suggest that in highly resource constrained nonprofits, providing guidance is the way to go. If you have a high number of a certain type of client, then provide that needed service. If you have scalability - go with service.

I also very much appreciated the following quote that he shared with us, attributed to Hannah Lee, of First Step: "We can save nobody, if we try to save everybody."

He discussed numerous fascinating possible extensions of his research, which was conducted with two faculty members at Georgia Tech, his alma mater - such as asymmetry in clients; asymmetry in services, and also earmarked funding. The latter I got quite excited about because of the work in that area by two of my former doctoral students, Professors Tina Wakolbinger and Fuminori Toyasaki.

I took a group photo of those who were still enjoying discussions after his talk and then it was time to host the lunch at the University Club. We talked so much and were quite hungry so I did not take any photos at mealtime. Also, I had to head to the airport (quite the regular activity for me) to catch flights to Virginia Tech.
We thank Professor Arora for his very inspiring talk. Great to see such research being conducted at business schools!