There seems to be a growing integration of higher education with real world experience. While internships are the most historically common form, other types of university-community collaboration are emerging with success. Take campusCATALYST for example. They are a graduate student mentored, undergraduate consulting outfit for nonprofits. Their recent projects include a fundraising and marketing plan for an at-risk youth program and designing a product line to provide an independent line of income. Consulting projects like these are gaining in popularity in business schools and mirror an important part of professional academics. But, there’s also a growing number of programs for students in the social sciences to develop their research skills by helping nonprofits. I wanted to share a bit of my experience researching with nonprofits to illustrate how these programs work and what value they can provide to nonprofits and students.
As an undergraduate, I was a part of the Public Service Research Program (PSRP) at Appalachian State University. App State, like a number of other universities, imported the program from Stanford’s Public Service Scholars Program. Basically, I spent a year, under the mentorship of a professor, working with a volunteer office to figure out why so few men volunteered there. The staff and I put together a couple of hypotheses and created a survey to test them. It turned out that men and women responded strongly to recruiters of the same gender. Thus, since the office only had a few men, it was more difficult to recruit more men in proportion to women.
Currently, I volunteer my time working on program evaluation with the Neighborhood Writing Alliance. We set up some basic outcomes we thought were important, given their mission statement and my knowledge of social science research, wrote up a survey, and analyzed the results. Now, the NWA knows how engagement in their writing work shops connect with their writers’ satisfaction with the program; how engaged writers are in other organizations, their local communities, and politics; and writers’ perceptions of fairness, trust, and self-confidence. All of this goes into their grant-writing, reports to their board, and program development.
These experiences illustrate the positive potential of combining social scientific education with nonprofits’ research needs. As a student, these projects have challenged me to put my understanding of social trends and processes to the test. The most important lesson I learned was getting the input of the people I worked with. Social scientists do not have a monopoly on knowledge. Nonprofit staff have good ideas about what’s going on in their organizations and their input is crucial to creating realistic hypotheses and data collection methods. On the academic side, these experiences have pushed me to explain plainly what sociology is and says and learn about different areas of research like volunteerism and, thanks to an NWA intern, a niche on assessing community empowerment at the boundary between sustainability and psychology. Finally, and most practically, it taught me to manage a complicated, multi-stakeholder research project.
For nonprofits, the benefits can be just as enormous. Social scientific methods and research are at the heart of the growing demand for program evaluation and impact assessment. Further, I’ve found that nonprofits have an incredible range of interesting and very relevant questions from staff training and retention to local food security and health trends. A good student can do the background research and collaborate in constructing a workable research strategy with the result being a broader, research-based perspective on the problem and, hopefully, an answer (research is never guaranteed to provide actionable results).
Given that 85% of undergraduates in the social sciences go on to work in nonprofits, corporations, and the government; instituting a PSRP kind of program, I believe, not only pushes students’ engagement with the practice of social research, but prepares them to actually use it in their lives after university. As for nonprofits, such a broad engagement would, among other things, help cover the accountability funding gap where grant-makers ask for evaluations, but won’t pay for the overhead cost of a researcher.
Finally, if you’re a nonprofit looking to find a research volunteer or intern, contact the nearest university’s civic engagement or volunteer office and see if they have a such a program. If not, encourage them to look into one. At the very least, they will post your opening and channel an interested student your way.