Center for Community & Nonprofit Studies

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.

We aim to be a globally recognizable leader making significant contributions, in the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea, to “inquiry and action for social change.”

Want to learn more about what’s going on at the CommNS? Interested in joining the conversation about communities and the organizations that serve them? Check out CommNS Knowledge!

Visit CommNS Knowledge to stay up-to-date on events and convenings, download briefs and reports, read timely blog posts, explore ongoing projects, and more.

Mission & Vision


The CommNS builds capacity and knowledge in community, civil society, and nonprofit studies through the integration of action and applied research, education, outreach and engagement.


The CommNS provides an inspiring place for UW faculty and Center affiliates to exchange and collaborate with fellow researchers, students, community members, professionals and volunteers in civil society and community organizations in the following ways:

  • Conducting groundbreaking applied research examining key issues in communities and the nonprofit sector/civil society.
  • Creating outstanding education/informational exchanges that promote best practices for community improvement and collaborative strategies for achieving social/systems change. The CommNS provides a platform for dissemination and engagement with community members, professionals, and students engaged in community and nonprofit leadership. The CommNS’ scholarship, dissemination, and capacity building supports the development of current and future leaders and practitioners in community and nonprofit organizations, as well as the development of scholars trained to employ multiple methods and multiple disciplinary perspectives to solving real-world problems in collaboration with community and nonprofit organizations.
  • Innovative thinking that develops new strategies through collaborative and participatory research and community engagement. Through bridging research and practice and fostering experiential education, the CommNS is involved in devising new models and strategies for impact on social issues and community improvement.
Focus Areas

The work of the CommNS happens through collaboration among a variety of contributors, including faculty, students, 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.

The CommNS supports inquiry and action for social change, in the following focus areas:

·       Alternative and solidarity economies
·       Community-based design and placemaking
·       Food systems
·       Program evaluation
·       Sector studies
·       Sustainable and healthy communities
·       Youth development and civic engagement

Across Focus Areas, work is centered on key inquiry and action efforts

  • Multidisciplinary engaged scholarship, research, and dissemination community engagement, wisdom, and use
  • Capacity-building for current and future nonprofit and  community organizations, innovators and change agents, leaders and influencers through teaching and the exchange of ideas, both in the classroom and in the community
  • Technical support to nonprofit and community organization partners, and bi-directional learning from such collaborations, with involvement from students, faculty, staff, and community partners
  • Support of collaborations with groups across UW-Madison and UW-Extension related to nonprofit, civil society, civic engagement, and community endeavors
Key Efforts & Special Initiatives

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, our affiliates and community partners, and students to conduct groundbreaking applied research that examines key issues in communities and the civic and nonprofit sectors.  We facilitate exchanges among community members, practitioners, scholars, and students to foster innovative thinking, best practice development, and community engagement which advances understanding and practice of community, nonprofit, and civil society efforts.

With awareness of historic challenges in university and community collaboration, and in the nonprofit sector itself, the CommNS works to build and grow mutually beneficial and impactful community-campus partnerships and to advance equitable and effective practices in community and nonprofit work.  We uphold the belief in the need to elevate historically underrepresented and community-led voices, leadership, and approaches.  Our research, capacity-building, outreach, and educational activities prioritize community wisdom and the role of the university in contributing to impactful work on the ground, in furtherance of the Wisconsin Idea.

Our efforts engage a broad range of stakeholders to conduct Inquiry and Action for Social Change.


Outreach and Educational Activities

CommUniversity Sessions and CommUnity Conversations: The CommNS hosts “CommUniversity” outreach and engagement events which are free and open to students, faculty, and community members.  At these events, CommNS friends and colleagues convene to discuss key themes impacting communities, organizations, and scholarship, and to explore potential projects and collaborations.  We also host CommUnity Conversations to allow colleagues across affinity groups, community contexts and sectors to exchange ideas, information, and perspective on key themes.

The CommNS Annual Event: The CommNS hosts an annual conference that is focused on a key theme – for example, “Getting the Work Done: ‘How-Tos’ in Nonprofit and Community Efforts” (October 2020), “Where Mission Meets Advocacy” (April 2019), “Funding and Social Change” (April 2018) and “This is What Democracy Looks Like” (Fall 2016).  This annual event brings together a broad range of participants, including students, faculty, and community partners from across Wisconsin and beyond.

Fundraising and Development for Nonprofits Conference: The CommNS took leadership of this historic UW-hosted conference and continues to enhance the model to serve broader audiences and address cutting-edge themes of funding, revenue models, and sustainability in the third sector.

Current information and archives related to CommNS Events can be found at CommNS Knowledge.

Research and Dissemination

Additionally, the CommNS continues to build its capacity to translate and disseminate research and knowledge to communities and practitioners, through its “CommNS Knowledge” multimedia platforms and communication channels.

TheCommNS conducts engaged research on key focus areas related to community well-being and the third sector.  This research usually involves contributions from community partners and campus research teams.  The CommNS is able to leverage its platform within a large "R1" research institution and major flagship university to provide high-quality research support and infrastructure to advance projects that benefit community partners.  All Affiliates of the CommNS are invited to propose projects to the CommNS and take advantage of the CommNS pre-award support to prepare submissions.

The CommNS also hosts an annual “incentive funding” research competition for UW PIs, which provides incubator support for community-engaged research.


Collaborative Initiatives in the Sector, in Wisconsin, and the World

WisNRG: In recognition of a need for more coordination on the UW campus to support collaborations with the nonprofit sector, as well as of the absence 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. That effort has led to an unprecedented convening and ongoing network of non-profit-serving organizations statewide, called WisNRG (Wisconsin Nonprofit Resources and Gaps).  WisNRG provides an important platform for information-sharing, and a hub for resources and coordination for the Wisconsin nonprofit sector.

Civic Health of Wisconsin: In an effort to assess and address Wisconsin’s “Civic Health” – or, the way that communities are organized to define and address public problems, the CommNS formed a coalition of statewide nonpartisan organizations to create the inaugural Civic Health of Wisconsin report and promote informed strategies to improve Wisconsin’s civic health.  This is an ongoing effort, with the inaugural report expected to be published in 2020, which we hope will serve as a catalyst for ongoing action across Wisconsin communities.

Wisco+World Efforts:  The CommNS has a growing circle of global partners, through university-to-university collaborations, federal government programs to promote global exchange, and nonprofit and community organization partnerships.  These relationships span Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Europe.  Our “Wisco+World” collaborations allow us to exchange and learn across contexts and to gain better understanding of community and nonprofit efforts on a global scale.  We actively engage students and classrooms and pursue grant funding for collaborative research and outreach projects with these “Wisco+World” partners.

Campus-wide Initiatives

The CommNS plays a collaborative role in a variety of campus-wide initiatives, including but not limited to the UniverCity Alliance, the 4W Initiative, the YALI Mandela Fellows Program, and the UW-South Madison Partnership Advisory Board, to name a few. The CommNS is a key contributor to the University of Wisconsin-Madison “Civic Action Plan”, to promote better community engagement, and is a key participant in a network of Community-Campus Connector (“C3”) units who work to share with each other and improve upon the way we conduct community-engaged work.

Technical Support for Community and Nonprofit Organizations

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-service basis through our “Co-Create” Initiative. With a unique approach that prioritizes collaboration and creativity, these projects meet the specific interests of community groups and build sustainability and lasting relationships along the way. Products from these joint endeavors, including research findings and evaluation tools, are often made available for the benefit of broader audiences as well.  Visit the “Connect with Co-Create” tab on our webpage to learn more.

Student Experience and Preparing Future Change Agents

As a hub for interaction among practitioners, community members, and thought leaders in the field and on campus, the CommNS also contributes to various student opportunities and degree programs, including design and delivery of several professional-skills-oriented, community-engaged and service learning courses which allow students to apply learning in real world contexts and in collaboration with community partners.  The CommNS is a key contributor to the Community and Nonprofit Leadership Undergraduate Bachelor of Science Degree, the Community and Nonprofit Leadership Capstone Certificate, for continuing learners who have already obtained their bachelor’s degree and wish to expand their knowledge and skills to serve as change agents or leaders in the sector, and the Human Ecology Master of Science Program. Through its contributions to bring community and practitioner wisdom, and timely, critical, and community-based activities, insights, and guidance to the classroom, the CommNS contributes to students’ preparation for careers in the nonprofit sector and as change agents in communities and the world.

Additionally, our outreach and engagement events bring students together with practitioners and experts from the field.  Our network of collaborators and our Co-Create technical support and research initiatives create special opportunities for students to engage in networking and project-based work.  These hands-on experiences offer meaningful learning to students in addition to meaningful support to community partners.  We also offer networking opportunities for students to connect with community partners, and to help students identify internships and capstone opportunities through our robust and growing network of collaborators.

Connect with Co-Create

Collaboration. Research. Evaluation. Outreach. Strategy. Connections.

Co-Create is the space we make for collaborative creation with your nonprofit organization or community group to meet your unique needs for advancing social change.

Bring to us your questions, your challenges, and your dreams, and let’s create together!

Our Co-Create team offers:

  • Expertise in nonprofits, community processes, and the “third sector”
  • Evaluation and applied research, and other ways of bringing inquiry to action
  • Facilitation for strategic planning and other organizational processes
  • Outreach and communication strategies
  • Connections to other university researchers and resources

We can support your organization’s vision for social change through collaborative efforts that leverage the assets of engaged research:

  • Knowledge and synthesis of research in community and nonprofit studies 
  • Data collection, analysis, participatory research, and evaluation
  • Skills in strategic planning, program design, and group facilitation
  • Connections to university experts and other opportunities to work together

Nonprofit organizations and community groups benefit from our services, which include: 

  • Program evaluation
  • Landscape scans
  • Evaluation plans
  • Stakeholder assessments
  • Data skill building
  • Strategic planning
  • Literature reviews
  • Program and initiative design 

Explore a Co-Create project with the CommNS! Contact Amy Hilgendorf, Associate Director for Engaged Research, | 608-712-5950


Overview Video

Connect with CommNS


University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Community and Nonprofit Studies
1300 Linden Drive
4285M Nancy Nicholas Hall
Madison, WI 53706

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