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Discussing University and NPO Partnerships on the Table

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tony Mastracci   
September 30, 2014

Mastracci SeptTo what extent do nonprofits and universities collaborate?

What barriers to collaboration exist, and what opportunities exist for fruitful collaboration?

After receiving my MPA in 1993 and having worked in both the public sector and social sector for the last 20 years, I joined American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) and attended my first conference in March 2014. I was struck by the potential for nonprofits and universities to work together. The opportunities for collaboration between universities and nonprofit practitioners to address difficult community and social issues seem unlimited. ASPA could provide the ideal context for those interests to converge. So I wondered if I have just not been exposed to these relationships in my particular job or was there something structural hindering these types of collaborations. And if so, why?

Recently, the Chicago Community Trust (CCT) celebrated its 99th anniversary by sponsoring “On the Table,” a unique, shared meal event to get people in the Chicagoland area talking about community issues. Founded in 1915, CCT is a foundation that seeks “To lead and inspire philanthropic efforts that measurably improve the quality of life and the prosperity of [its] region.” This event took place May 12 throughout Chicagoland and individuals were invited to gather and discuss an issue related to the future of the region. Individual hosts submitted their ideas to CCT, who in turn sent each host a toolkit to facilitate discussion. Toolkits were comprised of notepads on which to share thoughts, guidelines for discussions and specific instructions on how to live tweet during “On the Table” discussions in order to report activities in real time. More than 1,000 discussion circles, involving more than 10,000 people, took place in restaurants, homes and community centers throughout the region.

The group that gathered for discussion I hosted consisted of five professors from University of Illinois Chicago, DePaul University and Northern Illinois University, and the six nonprofit executives from five nonprofit organizations. While CCT provided some general questions for groups to address, our group also pursued specific discussion questions including:

  • Can nonprofit organizations and universities work closer together to solve difficult community and social issues?
  • If yes, how does that happen?  Is it formalized?  Why or why not?
  • What are some of the barriers from both sides about why partnerships can be difficult to implement?
  • How can some of those barriers begin to be broken down?
  • What can universities learn from nonprofit practitioners?
  • What can nonprofit practitioners learn from universities?

In the following paragraphs, I describe the discussion we had, detail some barriers to partnerships as well as some possible next steps to formalize collaborations between nonprofit organizations and universities.

Disconnections between Nonprofit Organizations and Universities

Project Scale

It can be difficult for universities to develop a partnership around single program projects or single case studies. This does not provide the scale or longitudinal analysis necessary for the university. Publication on such small programs and time horizons is generally not useful because the results are not generalizable or theory-driven. However, single program evaluation is often precisely the type of project needed by a nonprofit organization. When single-issue case studies or evaluation is being done, it is often a student driven process. However, this produces a difference in drivers, as the work becomes more of a learning process for students, but does not often provide the rigor required by nonprofit for beneficial program evaluation and decision-making. In the words of one of the nonprofit directors, this “…creates a fragmented system; what academics want to study does not translate to the reality in the community.” That level of rigor is much more tied to faculty, but there is little incentive for faculty to engage in these projects, because there is little incentive to do so.

Project Design and Structure

When collaborations do happen, it is critical that the participants and their relationship to the projects is not ad hoc. Research and evaluation are two very different designs and outcomes, and at least for the participants around the table. Universities tend to be interested in longer term research, while nonprofit organizations are more interested in program evaluation. All parties, then, need to be very clear about goals of the project and partnership. Another important issue that must be decided and agreed to up front is who owns the data, and how that information will be used for both the university and the nonprofit organization.

Channels of Communication

One interesting issue that arose during discussion was the difficulty that nonprofit organizations had in finding the right channel through which to communicate to universities. There is a need to better understand where the right place is to talk about a collaboration based on the level and type of work required. The connectivity is important, because it is where we lose efficiencies if the right people are not being contacted. There are different partnerships and programs within universities and they are not always necessarily tied together at the university, which can be very siloed. It creates a burden for an organization, trying to hunt down the right person and becomes difficult to track community engagement.

University and Nonprofit Resources

Funding directed to nonprofit organizations is often very narrow in focus. As a result, managing collaborations with universities must be paid for through non-restricted, general operations funding, which must be prioritized with all other organizational operating expenses. And to do this collaboration well, one of the nonprofit directors said that you need to make a choice – do you hire a director of program evaluation or two case managers? For universities, the financial incentives are not built into the university structure. At many universities, faculty is on a nine-month contract, so unpaid research, which would likely happen with a nonprofit collaboration, must occur outside of the nine-month contract.

Collaboration Ideas

In order to overcome some of the barriers described above, the group discussed the idea of developing a set of shared values that could be used as a collaboration framework. This would be a joint tool for nonprofits and universities to identify the levers that are common to each and develop the principles of collaboration. The values could include a commitment to helping solve important community issues and generate social impact. We also discussed the idea of nonprofits and universities developing a “wish list” of the work and research that would provide value for both. Our group made a commitment to continue the conversation and begin to develop these tools for implementation.


Author: Tony Mastracci can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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