Leading change in nonprofits

April 23, 2019
Nonprofit Studies students present capstone research at Leading Change Conference

By Morgan Geyer, ’19

Earier this year, three students in the Master of Nonprofit Studies program at the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies presented their capstone research at the inaugural Leading Change Conference. The Leading Change Conference was hosted by James Madison University’s School of Strategic Leadership Studies and showcased the interdisciplinary leadership research of graduate students and faculty. 

Students Anj McClain, GC’18; Suzanne Herbst, GC’19; and Ellen Osborne, GC’18, were encouraged to submit their capstone papers to the conference by Dr. Andrew Schoeneman, professor and nonprofit studies program chair.

First, McClain presented her paper, “Examining How Collaboration Can Influence Educational Policy,” which analyzed the many stakeholders that are involved in influencing educational policy. While there are an abundance of stakeholders working towards change, unmet needs in the community remain. Rather than working in separate silos as these stakeholders currently are, McClain concluded that these individuals and organizations should collaborate in order to better communicate with policy makers. 

McClain currently works as the Manager of Development for Higher Achievement, an educational nonprofit. In this role, McClain noticed that efforts to influence educational policy made very little progress even though there were many different stakeholders working towards change. 

This policy problem inspired the topic of her research. “Most of the time it feels like we are working against each other and the needle still isn’t moving,” McClain shared, “I chose this topic because I really wanted to dig into the relationship piece and see what literature existed and compare that to real people working on education policy.”

Next, Herbst displayed research from her paper, “Understanding Program Evaluation and Evaluation Capacity in Small Nonprofit Organizations.” She explained the shortcomings of current program evaluations in small nonprofit organizations as well as some of the challenges that smaller organizations face when attempting to implement effective program evaluations. 

Like McClain, Herbst’s research was rooted in real world application. Herbst works at The Shepherd’s Center of Chesterfield, a small nonprofit organization which consists of only herself and the executive director. She discovered the importance of using program evaluations in her class, Assessment and Program Evaluation, where she designed an assessment for her own organization. 

Observing the disparity in program evaluations between smaller and larger nonprofit organizations, Herbst wanted to explore how these evaluations could be better designed to compete with those made for larger nonprofits. On the importance of these assessments, Herbst expressed, “You need to know where you are before you can figure out where you're going. Evaluations are critical on an organizational level as they figure into fundraising and strategic planning.”

Finally, Ellen Osborne presented the findings of her paper, “An Exploratory Evaluation of Volunteer Satisfaction at Literacy Volunteers of Charlottesville/Albemarle” which won the award for Best Master's Paper of the Leading Change Conference. 

Osborne is the Executive Director of Literacy Volunteers of Charlottesville/Albemarle, a nonprofit organization that offers free basic literacy and English as a Second Language tutoring to adults through the training and recruitment of volunteers. Osborne conducted a qualitative study of her organization where she interviewed 12 past and present volunteers in order to gauge volunteer satisfaction and improve volunteer retention. 

While Osborne has over 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, she decided to pursue her MNS degree in order to gain an academic background for the work she does. “Every semester what I was learning about in class became the focus of my work for that period of time in my job,” Osborne shared, “For example, when I took a finance course, I then took a deep dive into the finances of my own organization.’

For Osborne, the Leading Change Conference was a practice run for the national conference on adult education, ProLiteracy, where she will present her work. 

Schoeneman is proud of his students and the practical applications of their research. “The whole purpose of our Nonprofit Studies program is to improve the work that nonprofits do. We do this by setting up a framework that connects our students’ graduate work to the broader nonprofit community. These three student researchers exemplify the ideal of contributing, in concrete ways, to the public good and to the investigation of real-world challenges facing our communities,” shared Schoeneman. 

To encourage the work of nonprofit studies students and support their academic achievements, the School provided McClain, Herbst and Osborne with financial assistance to cover the cost of travel and accommodations during the Leading Change Conference. This assistance came from annual fund donations, given by donors during campaigns and events like URHere Giving Day.