By Linda Shipley, UNC Charlotte Urban Institute
Two of UNC Charlotte’s most visible institutes are merging to create a combined center with unparalleled research capacity to address social issues in the Charlotte region. On March 8, the Institute for Social Capital (ISC) board of directors and UNC Charlotte agreed to merge the ISC staff and operations into the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, the university’s oldest applied research center.
The Institute for Social Capital was founded by the Foundation of UNC Charlotte in 2004, after considerable input from social service agencies and other community stakeholders in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Its mission is to provide social resources that advance university research and increase the community’s capacity for data-based planning and evaluation. At its core is a comprehensive community database of local social and human capital data from 13 public and nonprofit agencies, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department and the Department of Social Services. While maintaining the confidentiality of individual records, the ISC database connects dispersed data sets, providing a foundation for researchers to build a better understanding of the social and environmental variables that affect the community, particularly outcomes for children and families.
The merger follows the resignation of the longtime ISC director, Dr. Sharon Portwood, who in January returned to a full-time faculty position at UNC Charlotte’s College of Health and Human Services. Dr. Portwood was ISC’s first executive director, and as an authority on issues related to youth and families she is credited not only with securing the many complex data-sharing agreements that were essential to the creation of the ISC database, but also with establishing the young institute’s credibility among community stakeholders and academic researchers.
“Dr. Portwood was the perfect choice to serve as our first executive director of the Institute for Social Capital,” said Joan Lorden, UNC Charlotte Provost. “The respect she has among her peers as a first-rate researcher, her legal background, and her commitment to building a community of practice around research on children gave us someone who was uniquely qualified to shepherd such an ambitious and complex new center during its formative years. We are forever grateful for her contributions.”
By bringing the Institute for Social Capital into the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, the ISC board and UNC Charlotte hope to leverage the considerable research and administrative resources of the Urban Institute to expand ISC’s capacity to reach out into the community to conduct timely and relevant research using the ISC database. Founded in 1969, the Urban Institute has more than 40 years of experience as an applied research center focusing on public policy issues in the Charlotte region. Its three primary focus areas are the economy, the environment and social well-being.
“We feel that we are combining two tremendous community assets – the unique resource that is the ISC database, and the extraordinary resources and reputation of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute,” said ISC board president Peggy Eagan, executive director of the Children and Family Services Center of Charlotte. “The two institutes already share many of the same research partners, both on and off campus, so we anticipate a smooth and seamless transition.”
The Institute for Social Capital will operate as a research program of the Urban Institute, with a nonprofit subsidiary of the Foundation of UNC Charlotte continuing to operate as the fiscal and legal steward of the ISC database for security reasons. The search for a new director is under way, with a target of having someone on board by midsummer. In the meantime, Urban Institute Director Jeff Michael will continue to serve as interim director of ISC, as he has since January.
“We’re already experiencing the anticipated benefits of merging the two institutes,” Michael said. In February, United Way of Central Carolinas and the Wells Fargo Foundation announced a new research initiative, Collective Impact, to evaluate the effectiveness of United Way-funded programs focusing on children and youth. The research is being conducted by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, using Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools data found in the ISC database.
“The Collective Impact evaluation became a reality because officials with United Way and the Wells Fargo Foundation were excited about the potential that the combined entity provided the Charlotte-Mecklenburg community for this sort of innovative approach to evaluation,” Michael says. “I think we’ll see more and more of these kinds of collaborative research opportunities as we demonstrate the extraordinary potential of the ISC database in the months and years ahead.”