As Senior Program Manager at GiveDirectly, Keen uses her Harris skills to translate complex evidence for a wide breadth of actors to incorporate into their decision-making processes to improve emergency relief programs.
Headshot of Laura Keen
Laura Keen

Laura Keen, MPP’20, has spent her career working at organizations that seek to support marginalized and at-risk communities around the world. After earning her BA from the University of Pennsylvania in 2011, Keen worked in Peru and Ecuador for a healthcare nonprofit, organizing mobile medical clinics to provide preventative health services. Then, in 2013, she directed a pilot research initiative at the nonprofit Not For Sale. “The initiative aimed to prevent human trafficking in illegal Amazon goldmines by providing locals with alternative employment. That work exposed me to global supply chains and agriculture as a tool for development.”

Keen subsequently became a supply chain specialist and manager at Fair Trade USA, helping sugarcane and cocoa producers in Latin America and Africa implement fair-trade standards to improve social and environmental practices. “We then demonstrated to brands that Fair-Trade certification mitigated risk in their supply chains and was a useful marketing tool,” Keen said. “I was drawn to the model because it seeks to empower the communities that implement it, as opposed to existing as an external mandate.”

However, Keen observed that well-intentioned efforts frequently lacked proper data collection or the resources to perform the quantitative evaluation needed to assess programmatic efficacy.

“I saw that if I wanted to help on a larger scale, I needed to learn how to conduct in-depth analysis,” Keen said. “I came to Harris to develop tools to assess which interventions are actually good and which are just superficial.”

Keen, who also was a fellow of The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts while earning her MPP, credits Harris for helping her develop those tools. “I learned how to analyze programs critically, to identify gaps, and to think through what might be going right or wrong. It’s exactly what I hoped for.”

Today, she puts those skills into practice as the Senior Program Manager for the U.S. program team of GiveDirectly, a nonprofit that specializes in giving unconditional cash to people in poverty. She oversees the organization’s work focused on emergency relief and disaster response.

“In my role, there is a heavy emphasis on analytical rigor,” Keen said. “Cash is an elegant intervention, but how you administer payments can have very heterogeneous effects. We really try to home in on the specific impact that cash has on at-risk communities, and how to optimize outcomes based on who receives the cash, how much they receive, and how frequently they receive it.”

Keen, who entered Harris having never taken a statistics class, soon became enamored with the school’s Statistics and Data Analysis II and Program Evaluation courses. The classes teach students how to evaluate the causal impacts of programs using social experiments, regressions, panel data methods, instrumental variables, and other techniques.

“Now, I lean on the analytical skills I gained from Harris’ Core curriculum and program evaluation courses in my day-to-day work.” she said. “Plus, courses like Professor Jens Ludwig’s Artificial Intelligence for Public Policy have also been invaluable. GiveDirectly’s U.S. disaster response relies on machine learning generated predictions of damage that we apply to images captured in the wake of disasters. This allows us to identify areas of severe damage very quickly. Professor Ludwig’s course helped me conceptualize how those tools work—and not be intimidated by them.”

At GiveDirectly, Keen relies on the skills she learned at Harris to understand complex evidence and to use it to inform the design of the programs she administers. Her goal is to best use limited resources to tackle global poverty. “Equilibrium shifts require significant action, and that should be rooted in evidence-based policy.