The Measurable Impact of Community-Engaged Work

By: Sid Davis

Community engagement is seemingly everywhere these days. It's increasingly important in the corporate, political, academic, and philanthropic realms. Community, in this context, is sometimes defined by geographic contiguousness, but often it can transcend location to mean people with identical interests, similar situations, or shared ethnic backgrounds, wherever they may be. Community engagement is so prevalent that businesses now hire executives to increase it, police departments assign personnel to manage it, and universities erect buildings dedicated to it. There are even community engagement awards given by various bodies. But for a such a wide-ranging concept, measuring the impact of community engagement is a more nebulous proposition.

Professor Catherine Wilson is someone who aims to shed more light on the matter. She serves as chair of the Department of Public Administration at Villanova University, and is currently studying the impact of community engagement as it relates to teaching and research. She is writing a paper in collaboration with Dr. Stephanie Boddie of Baylor University entitled “Measuring Impact in Community-Engaged Teaching and Research.” The paper notes that while educational institutions have in recent years committed to community engagement, assessments of those efforts typically focus on student and university learning outcomes rather than the impact experienced by community partners.

In delving into community impact, Dr. Wilson and Dr. Boddie looked at Dr. Wilson's long-running nonprofit management course at Villanova. The course is designed to expose graduate students to the day-to-day work in the nonprofit sector and allow them to contribute substantively to those efforts. The nonprofits range from healthcare and legal groups to social services and educational organizations. As part five of GrantStation's partnership with ARNOVA (Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action), I talked with Dr. Wilson about her and Dr. Boddie's research and the lessons and insights that inform their paper.

"My interest in nonprofit organizations began with a love of ideas and the Spanish language."

How did you get started in your field? What funneled you toward the specific area of research you're doing? Was it personal or work experience? Pure academic interest?

My interest in nonprofit organizations began with a love of ideas and the Spanish language. I majored in Philosophy at Villanova University as I was interested in how ideas have consequences in social and political life. I also concentrated in Latin American Studies given my fondness for Spanish. I was educated by an order of religious sisters (the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus) in grade school who hailed from places like Spain and Cuba. These sisters shared many cultural insights with us while we repeated words and phrases in Spanish. This childhood experience made a great impact on my life as I later obtained my Masters in Latin American Studies at Georgetown University. At Georgetown, I researched not only inter-American affairs but also the influence of social movements in the region. I also had the great fortune to live in Latin America—I studied abroad at the Universidad de Concepción in Chile and worked in financial services in Buenos Aires, Argentina. As a doctoral student in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, I extended my interest in social movements to the United States and examined the social and political impact of Hispanic faith-based organizations in three urban neighborhoods in my dissertation.

Let's briefly define community-engaged teaching and learning. Can you explain those to any readers who may be unfamiliar with the idea?

Community-engaged teaching and learning involves the formation of partnerships between educators and community organizations for the purposes of enhancing their students’ educational experience and providing an important service—whether through volunteering or acting as a consultant, among other activities—to the organizations in question. The key element in community-engaged teaching and learning is the belief that learning not only occurs in the classroom but also in a larger community context. 

Okay, and you're highlighting the importance of measuring its impact by creating comprehensive impact metrics? What does that involve?

Along with my colleague and co-researcher, Dr. Stephanie Boddie, who is Assistant Professor of Church and Community Ministries at Baylor University, we are examining the role that impact metrics play in assessing the quality of the student learning experience and in the final product of the community-engaged projects, which have been a central part of my graduate Effective Nonprofit Management class at Villanova University over the last several years.

Dr. Boddie and I intend to measure impact for the three partners involved in these projects: the community (nonprofit) partner, the student partner, and the faculty partner. We aim to employ different kinds of impact metrics for each partner. For the community partners, we designed an open-ended questionnaire to ask in an interview setting about the overall impact of the project to the organization and the communities it serves. For the student partners, we developed a survey to distribute to students after they have completed their community-engaged project about learning objectives and skill/competency development. And for the faculty partner, we created a faculty self-assessment to ascertain the overall benefit of the projects to the students, course, and community partners.

Could these metrics be useful to the nonprofit community in measuring their own work?

In a sense. The impact metrics developed through this research would be in relation to community-engaged projects that involve a partnership or collaboration between a nonprofit and a higher education institution. Thus, the metrics created and assessed would enable participating nonprofit organizations in community-engaged projects to provide invaluable feedback on the effectiveness of the projects and make suggestions for improvement. Measuring the impact of these projects on the organizations that originally designed them and which worked alongside graduate student teams is critical so that we can understand the varied ways that community-engaged projects further the mission and services of participating organizations. In addition, measuring the impact of these projects can enable community partners to critique particular areas of the projects. These critiques have the added benefit of serving as helpful feedback which the faculty partner ultimately can use for future project design.

Have communities been receptive to your ideas? We've talked here on GrantStation about how some researchers have not historically always had the best interests of communities at heart. Are there any difficulties building trust in order to facilitate community-engaged teaching and learning?

I have been utilizing community-engaged projects in my graduate course since fall 2011. From the very beginning, I have made sure that participating organizations design a community-engaged project that would be beneficial to their current or future operations. This has served to build trust at the outset, since the faculty partner does not approach nonprofit organizations with a ready-made project in mind—i.e., all community-engaged projects must be strategic plans. Rather, nonprofit organizations may choose from a variety of topics covered in the syllabus (board development, volunteer management, advocacy, to name a few) as potential projects for graduate student teams to complete over the course of a semester.

"Community voice is essential in both solving social, political, and economic problems, and in building a base of knowledge that is relevant and representative."

I've been learning about how creating knowledge is influenced by power dynamics. The winner writes history, and so forth. In theory, the most accurate knowledge can only be created by giving more groups seats at the knowledge building table. Is community-engaged teaching and learning part of the movement to re-examine existing knowledge and create more accurate knowledge bases?   

This is such a great point. I would argue that those of us working in higher education should be involved in creating spaces for people—especially those from traditionally underserved communities—to speak for themselves and on their own terms. Community voice is essential in both solving social, political, and economic problems, and in building a base of knowledge that is relevant and representative. Colleges and universities can act as conveners in building this knowledge base by bringing together a range of community actors—public, private, and nonprofit—in a neutral space to share insights, identify significant areas of differences and power imbalances, and forge common ground. 

Nonprofits can be pretty shy about approaching universities or colleges to collaborate. Should we be encouraging nonprofit organizations to turn to institutions of higher learning to collaborate in order to solve a community problem?

I think that nonprofit organizations should be encouraged to approach higher education institutions to find effective and impactful ways to collaborate. However, I believe that the onus is on higher education institutions to have an infrastructure in place which communicates to interested nonprofits that community-engaged projects are welcome in their center or department and provides information on the range of potential ways to collaborate.

Nonprofits have the opportunity to partner with colleges and universities in three main ways: first, through a particular course which utilizes community-engaged projects; second, through a campus center of civic engagement or service-learning that makes possible a range of initiatives in which students, faculty, and community members can participate; or third, through research.

Nonprofits need to first know that they are invited to participate in a partnership by the higher education institution in question. This could take the form of faculty members reaching out to nonprofits in the region to discuss the relevance and viability of community-engaged projects to prospective nonprofits partners. Additionally, it could involve a campus center developing community partnerships which would allow students to volunteer at a nonprofit as part of a service-learning requirement for a course or as an extra-curricular activity. Finally, faculty regularly partner with nonprofits through their research on nonprofit management, advocacy, and outcomes measurement, among other areas.

Can you cite any examples of successful collaborations that nonprofit leadership could reference?

A good example of a successful collaboration would be the Greater University Circle Economic Inclusion (GUCI) Initiative in Cleveland. This initiative is a partnership among three neighborhood anchor institutions in Cleveland (Case Western University, the Cleveland Clinic, and University Hospitals Health System) to advance the economic inclusion of the neighborhood, its residents, and businesses. GUCI is regularly evaluated to assess its impact in the neighborhood. One such example of this is a 2018 evaluation report prepared by researchers from the Centers for Economic Development and Community Development and Planning at Cleveland State University.

An excellent example of a university center that engages in successful collaboration is The Nonprofit Institute at the University of San Diego (USD). In addition to clearly communicating the mission of the center, The Nonprofit Institute lists specific ways that they work to “strengthen institutions” (i.e., nonprofit organizations) on their website. We are honored that Pat Libby, who served as the founding director of The Nonprofit Institute for fifteen years until 2014, is a member of the Villanova Master of Public Administration (MPA) Advisory Board and its Strategic Planning Committee. We have so much to learn from her and her experience in establishing and directing The Nonprofit Institute at USD!

And last of all, what's next for you? You've done this research, will publish a paper with Dr. Boddie. Are there new areas of research you're looking at? New collaborations?

I am currently working on a paper with a 2021 Master of Public Administration (MPA) graduate, Rachel Flores, on the range of advocacy tactics and strategies utilized by immigrant nonprofit organizations in the Greater Philadelphia region. Additionally, I am completing a manuscript on the historic role that nonprofit organizations have played in delivering services to immigrant populations in Philadelphia. Finally, I look forward to collaborating with a new cohort of nonprofit organizations in Philadelphia in my Effective Nonprofit Management class this fall!

This article is part of a series in our partnership with ARNOVA to bring you the latest research being done on the nonprofit sector.

Read more articles and learn about the researchers here.


Catherine Wilson is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Public Administration at Villanova University. Her fields of study include nonprofit management, immigrant integration, nonprofit-government collaboration, and cultural competency. Dr. Wilson holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. in Latin American Studies from the Edmund J. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Published by GrantStation