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The Engaged University: Spotlight on QENO

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

By Tom Barth
April 4, 2022

Over many years as an MPA faculty member at three universities, some of my most rewarding experiences have involved engagement with the community. I am a firm believer in Boyer’s holistic view of scholarship, which includes the scholarship of discovery, integration, application and teaching/learning. The scholarship of application, often called the scholarship of engagement, involves faculty applying research in partnership with practitioners to address pressing real-world challenges. Combining the conceptual knowledge and convening capacity of the university, with the practical knowledge and lived experience of practitioners, can produce meaningful results not realizable with each group working in silos.

A marvelous example of such engagement is Quality Enhancement for Nonprofit Organizations (QENO) based at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. QENO is a partnership between UNCW and the community, created to help strengthen nonprofit organizations in southeastern North Carolina through professional, leadership and organizational development, providing connections to UNCW faculty, staff and students. QENO was initiated in 2006, through the collaborative efforts of local funders, community leaders and UNCW faculty and administrators from the Masters in Public Administration (MPA) program, who shared the goal of expanding opportunities for local nonprofits to network and receive training in nonprofit best practices. Special recognition should be given to the MPA faculty members, Drs. Steven Meinhold and Laurie Paarlberg, who were the visionary forces behind the initiative externally funded by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

Today, QENO has matured into a university-wide office with strong institutional support of UNCW’s Office of Community Engagement and Applied Learning. QENO leads multiple university-wide collaborations to provide increased resources to our region’s nonprofit sector. Primary funders include:

Under the current leadership of Sarah Daniels, an MPA alumna, QENO engages faculty, staff and independent contractors to facilitate interactive workshops and training seminars on topics such as board governance, financial management, human resource management, marketing and leadership. Importantly, they also include students from the programs in a variety of capacities that provide a rich, hands-on learning experience for future nonprofit and government leaders.

However, what truly separates QENO is the advent of a coaching program built around a Governance-Leadership-Management (GLM) model that provides a systematic nonprofit capacity building framework. In the past, expert coaches focused on specific needs identified by the nonprofit executive director. While extremely useful, this model tended to address only immediate operational challenges faced by the agency, but did not provide a comprehensive assessment of all the aspects necessary for a high-functioning nonprofit organization. Based on research, the GLM model recognizes the difference between the governance duties of the board of directors, the leadership provided by the board and executive level staff and the management provided by the executive, mid-level management and front-line supervisors.

Digging deeper, the GLM model has the coaches meet with the executive director and board chair to work through a series of questionnaires that assess their current operation in the following phases:

Phase 1: Impact (program development and advocacy)

Phase 2: People (human resources and board development)

Phase 3: Funding (resource development and financial management)

These assessments lead to the identification of goals for the coming year that address gaps in order of priority, and the establishment of a calendar for both working on these gaps, and also continuing to monitor existing good practices in an organized fashion. After this assessment and prioritization of goals, the coach continues to meet with the agency leadership on a monthly basis to provide resource kits/tools as needed. QENO also convenes quarterly information and discussion sessions with executive directors and other executive-level staff to foster communities of peer learning and support.

As an MPA faculty member (from another university but connected with the local community), I have the terrific opportunity to be one of the coaches working with a small nonprofit with the mission to provide exposure to the world of science for at risk youth through a series of after-school and summer programming. These dedicated nonprofit leaders have the passion and technical expertise to deliver excellent programming, but may lack the management background and staff to operate their organization at an optimal and sustainable level in the long-term. However, consistent with the community engagement literature, the faculty and other independent consultants do not provide answers in a one-way exchange; we provide frameworks for addressing gaps and have two-way dialogues on how to best move forward. 

My experience thus far speaks to the power of a university to collaborate with dedicated nonprofit organizations who enhance the quality of life in their communities in areas that government and the private sector are not addressing. The university brings research and the capacity to take a step back for reflection on long-term organizational health; the agency leaders bring their subject matter expertise and experience with service delivery on the ground—a rich example of the power of the academic-practitioner collaboration, only possible with a university invested in the scholarship of application through engagement with the community.


Author: Tom Barth is a professor in the Gerald G. Fox MPA program at UNC Charlotte. He teaches, conducts research and consults in the areas of organizational theory/development, strategic planning, human resource management and ethics.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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