The highlight of Abby Rodriguez’s fellowship with the nonprofit network Connect Richmond was moderating roundtable discussions among civic leaders and leading community conversations designed to collect data about improving health care resources.

This sort of work is the heart of community-based research. Rodriguez used information from those focus groups and face-to-face meetings in designing a survey and developing recommendations for strategic improvements of a vital, local online source, Connect Richmond. She then executed those improvements.

"There was very little guidance in my position," said Rodriguez, a leadership studies and Latin American and Iberian studies major with a pre-med concentration. “My boss used to be a Jepson professor and she understood the leadership challenges this project would present. I was very surprised how independent my position was. It made me step into the leadership role. I learned a lot in a very short time.”

The Connect Network was founded in 2001 by Dr. Nancy B. Stutts, who taught justice and civil society and community problem solving classes at the Jepson School until 2006, when she moved the project from Jepson to Virginia Commonwealth University. It joined the Partnership for Nonprofit Excellence, a supporting organization of The Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia in 2007. It is now coordinated in partnership with VCU.  

Rodriquez was chosen as the 2008 Richmond Memorial Health Foundation Fellow through a highly competitive process that included medical and graduate school applicants. Her work fulfilled her Jepson internship requirements. Her position required  exploring how health care nonprofits could work together through Connect Richmond to more effectively meet needs.

RMHF defines health broadly, so members attending the roundtable discussions were comprised of nonprofit leaders from an array of  organizations who worked on issues including affordable housing, wellness/obesity, child abuse, women’s issues, senior resources, Alzheimer’s, nursing, palliative care, and mental health.

She organized the research and content development project from top to bottom, planning how to facilitate it, inviting the attendees, leading the discussion sessions, implementing changes to the network and presenting a final report to the foundation. Health care nonprofit representatives discussed how they could network more effectively through ConnectRichmond, which provides Web-based information, resources and access to civic leaders and volunteers. “I asked them what areas within the health care section of the Web site needed improvement,” she said. She encouraged participants to take advantage of  "a great opportunity to network with local nonprofits, strengthen our community's lines of communication, help us improve Connect Richmond's resources and share valuable information.”

The community meetings were the foundation for the work she continued into the fall. "I got a lot of constructive criticism and ideas,” she said. “It was helpful to have a fresh view and see what needed to be changed and what wasn’t working. Most of the people are looking for the same thing — updated information and a local focus.” She developed new content for the Web site based on the community meetings and research findings.

One of the issues brought up most often, she said, was that people in need had difficulty getting access to care because of the city’s lack of transportation infrastructure.

Rodriguez said her fellowship with the Connect Network tied directly to the vision laid out in the strategic plan by the University of Richmond’s president, Edward Ayers. “One of [the principles] is to increase connectiveness with local community,” she said. “Using resources like Connect Richmond would help that.”

Connect Richmond ( features e-mail communication groups, job and volunteer searches, a community calendar, nonprofit profiles, nonprofit items needed, articles on local issues, how-to guides and funding and training opportunities. Its vision, according to the Web site, is “to build shared momentum for locally driven community change.”

“I think it’s a novel idea,” Rodriguez said about the network. “It’s the pilot program. Other ones are starting elsewhere in the country using our model.”

Posted: April 2009