Exterior of Nancy Nicholas Hall in the evening, with lamps and windows glowing.
News & Events

What is the CommNS?

The Center for Community and Nonprofit Studies, or the “CommNS”, is a hub for faculty, students, and community partners to collaborate on research, practice, and evaluation that examines and advances the well-being of communities, as well as the civic and nonprofit sectors.

The CommNS builds capacity and knowledge in community and nonprofit studies through the integration of action, research, education, outreach, engagement, and evaluation. It provides an inspiring place for UW faculty and CommNS affiliates to conduct groundbreaking applied research examining key issues in communities and the civic and nonprofit sectors. The CommNS facilitates exchanges among community members, practitioners, and academic scholars to encourage innovative thinking, best practice development, and mutually beneficial research partnerships and community engagement.

The CommNS is positioned within the School of Human Ecology (SoHE) Centers of Excellence, with opportunities to take advantage of shared infrastructure and support across all five (5) Centers of Excellence.  For more context, as well as more detail on the CommNS, please see the Centers of Excellence 2016-17 Annual Report and Video: https://humanecology.wisc.edu/the-centers-of-excellence-2016-2017-annual-report-is-here/

CommNS operations are maintained by a small team of individuals, including its Executive Director (Mary Beth Collins), an Associate Director of Engaged Research (Amy Hilgendorf), Outreach Specialists (Sara Ansell and Alan Talaga), various staff members, faculty, and graduate students who work on funded grant projects, and an undergraduate student hourly worker (currently Alice Wang).

Historically, a faculty director has contributed leadership (formerly Dr. Brian Christens and, on an interim basis, Dr. Cynthia Jasper). The SoHE Community and Nonprofit Profit Leadership faculty associate (Michael Maguire) also contributes to the staff team.  

Focus Areas, Affiliates, and Community Partners

Graphic depicting the 6 focus areas of the CommNS: Sustainable Communities, Wellbeing, and Empowerment, Youth Development & Civic Engagement Program Evaluation, Nonprofit Studies, Community Design and Place-Making, Food Systems

The work of the CommNS happens through collaboration among a variety of contributors, including faculty and staff from across campus, other institutions of higher education, and from community organizations.  These collaborators connect with us through our “Focus Areas” and as “Affiliates” of the CommNS

There are six (6) Focus Areas for the CommNS, which help us to connect around certain timely affinity groups that pertain to community and nonprofit work:

  • Sustainable Communities, Wellbeing, and Empowerment
  • Youth Development & Civic Engagement
  • Program Evaluation
  • Nonprofit Studies
  • Community Design and Place-Making
  • Food Systems

Each Focus Area has co-leads. These co-leads, predominately faculty from SoHE and elsewhere on the UW campus, help inform the ongoing work and events of the CommNS.

The CommNS also maintains dozens of Affiliates who are engaged in efforts that align with one or more of the Focus Areas.

We also collaborate closely with the Morgridge Center for Public Service through various special initiatives. 


Relationship to Course Offerings and Degree Programs

Throughout its history, the CommNS has grown and developed alongside SoHE academic programs addressing communities and the civic and nonprofit sectors, including the Community and Nonprofit Leadership undergraduate major and the Civil Society and Community research graduate program. This relationship links the research and outreach opportunities facilitated by the CommNS with the learning objectives, needs, and scholarship of SoHE students and faculty.

The new SoHE Applied Master’s Program, with its Professional Skills course requirements (focusing on community wisdom and leveraging networks of nonprofit and third sector leaders also connected to the CommNS), is also linked informally, conceptually, and in its leadership (Mary Beth Collins) to the Center’s work.  Recently, the CommNS and the CSCS department have been able to collaborate with the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the Wisconsin School of Business. SoHE has now taken on and hosts the Board Leadership Course initially developed at Bolz.  Cynthia Jasper’s CSCS Philanthropy Lab course is another example of an inventive offering under a CommNS team member’s leadership. The incredible network of community partners we have through the CommNS has informed and contributed significantly to these course offerings, helping to solidify the approach of our programs to bridge research and learning at the University to the wisdom of those doing work on the ground in our communities, Wisconsin, and the world.

Current Initiatives of the CommNS

  • Sponsored Programs, Research and Outreach Grants, including creative community-collaborative, local, and international projects.  The CommNS is host to a variety of extramurally funded sponsored programs that advance applied scholarship and research.
  • Annual Event and Lunch and Learn Series.  The CommNS hosts an annual conference that is focused on a key theme – for example, “This is What Democracy Looks Like” (2016) and “Funding and Social Change” (April 2018).  It also hosts Brown Bag presentations throughout the academic year.  At these events, Affiliates and interested audiences convene to discuss key themes impacting communities and scholarship, and explore potential future projects and collaborations.
  • Technical Support from the “Co-Create” Team.  Leveraging expertise in research, evaluation, outreach, and nonprofit and community processes, CommNS staff and graduate students provide technical support in various forms to community groups on a fee-for-services basis. With a unique approach that prioritizes collaboration and creativity, these projects meet the specific interests of community groups and build lasting sustainability and relationships along the way. Products from these joint endeavors, including research findings and evaluation tools, are made available for the benefit of broader audiences as well.
  • MoCSI and WisNRG.  In recognition of a need for more coordination on the UW campus to support community collaborations as well as of the void of a statewide nonprofit association in the state of Wisconsin, the CommNS led an effort in 2017 to coordinate on-campus community partnership efforts with Morgridge Center for Public Service partners (a.k.a. the Morgridge and CommNS Special Initiatives group, or MoCSI).  Additionally, CommNS has led an unprecedented convening of non-profit-serving organizations statewide, called WisNRG (Wisconsin Nonprofit Resources and Gaps).
  • Fundraising and Development for Nonprofits Conference.  The CommNS has the opportunity to take leadership of this historic UW-hosted conference and may be able to enhance the model to serve broader audiences and engage cutting-edge themes of the third sector that the CommNS aims to address.
  • Campus-wide Initiatives. The CommNS is already a key player in a variety of campus-wide thematically based initiatives and is valued in those contexts for its ability to address multidisciplinary community themes and thoughtful approaches to community engagement and organizing. Some of these initiatives include: Creative Placemaking and Design in Communities, Food Systems, UniverCity Year, WiscoJalisco collaboration, and 4W. The CommNS is also a contributing member to UW-Madison’s Community Relations’ team to guide the UW South Madison Partnership Space, and was a key contributor to the recently promulgated “Civic Action Plan”, to promote better community engagement, for our campus (see: https://morgridge.wisc.edu/about/civic-action-plan/), and will take leadership on several of the Civic Action Plan recommendations going forward.
  • Paid Internships.  The SoHE Paid Internship program connects the CommNS to undergraduate opportunities and our wide array of community and nonprofit partners.

Looking Ahead – “Root Down and Build Out”

In 2017, the CommNS began a “Root Down and Build Out” process to fortify and deepen the intentions already set for our Center:

Meetings of our CommNS Steering Committee and Staff Team Strategic Planning have resulted in the following “Why, What, How” and our Key Values.

The most recent work on a “Why”, “What”, “How” Statement, to help refresh our intentions for the 2018-23 SoHE Strategic Planning process resulted in the following draft language:

Why: The UW should, with the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea, be a force for positive social change in an inequitable world.

What: An institutional hub for transdisciplinary work that bridges and unites inquiry and action for social change, with a particular focus on collaborating with and supporting community and nonprofit initiatives and organizations.


  • Community-engaged research, action research, and evaluation
  • Impactful community-campus partnerships
  • Dissemination and translation of research – research to practice
  • Capacity-building for academic and third sector/nonprofit partners
  • Multidisciplinary and multi-sector convenings
  • Preparing future leaders, influencers, and scholars to be critical and effective in a complex and changing sector
  • Innovative, efficient support of sponsored programs for inquiry and action
  • “Liberating” research, evaluation, and data
  • Bidirectional engagement and community in the lead
  • Shifting power to historically marginalized groups and individuals

Key Values that the Steering Committee wishes to embrace in the next era include:

  • Understanding and acknowledging local-to-global and global-to-local impact, as well as the role of historic context in community and nonprofit studies
  • Community-centered priorities and approach
  • Elevating “new” (historically underrepresented) voices, leadership, and approaches
  • Balancing practical preparation, skills, and support with encouragement and development of critique in the sector

This guidance contributes to building capacity and knowledge in the Community and Nonprofit Studies through the integration of action and applied research, education, outreach, and engagement.

Together, our CommNS staff, partners, and stakeholders are continuing to work toward the ultimate goal of building the Pre-Eminent Campus-Community Center focused on Inquiry and Action for Social Change, particularly through the work of community and nonprofit initiatives and organizations… for a better Wisconsin and world. 

Won’t you join us?