Center for Community and Nonprofit Studies

ccns_4c_l-2Inquiry & Action for Social Change

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, students, 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 and support innovative thinking, best practice development, and mutually beneficial research partnerships, technical support, and community-engaged projects and learning. If you would like more information about the CommNS, please email Executive Director Mary Beth Collins at

Focus Areas & Affiliates

The work of the CommNS happens through collaboration among a variety of contributors, including faculty, staff, and students from across campus; other institutions of higher education; and community members and 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 in affinity groups pertaining to timely themes in community and nonprofit work:

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

Key Efforts of the CommNS

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


Outreach and Educational Activities

  • Lunch and Learn:  The CommNS 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.
  • Annual Event: 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).
  • Fundraising 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.


  • Sponsored Programs, Research and Outreach Grants: This includes 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.


Support from Campus in the Sector

  • MoCSI & 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).
  • 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.

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:, and will take leadership on several of the Civic Action Plan recommendations going forward.

Student Opportunities and Preparing Future Change Agents

  • Paid Internships: The SoHE Paid Internship program connects the CommNS to undergraduate opportunities and our wide array of community and nonprofit partners.
  • Departmental Affiliation: The CommNS also serves as a hub for interaction among practitioners, community members, thought leaders in the field and on campus, as well as for research and outreach that inform programming of the Department of Civil Society and Community Studies and the SoHE Applied Master’s Program.  Through the CommNS contributions to amplify community and practitioner wisdom, students preparing for careers in the nonprofit sector and as change agents in their communities receive timely, critical, and community-based insights and guidance.

Current Events & News

Harvesting Data to Grow Farmer’s Markets
Alfonso Morales and the CommNS worked to develop the Metric and Indicators for Impact – Farmers Markets (MIFI-FM).In 2015, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) partnered with the University of Wisconsin–Madison to engage Wisconsin Main Street organizations and farmers markets in the Metrics and Indicators for Impact – Farmers Markets (MIFI-FM) toolkit.  Formulating performance measures and subsequently, collecting and interpreting data is commonplace in business and government, but it can pose challenges for farmers market managers. Managers know that the activities are important but they lack the resources and training to integrate them into their routine practices.  In business and government, reliable performance data drives creative initiatives and decisions, and research indicates that market managers share this need for information.

MIFI-FM provides farmers markets with the means to develop customized knowledge that enhances their internal decision-making and external communication activities.  Markets select metrics that will help them understand and evaluate their performance within the context of their goals, their community, and in this case, the Main Street initiatives.  For example, they are collecting data on visitor attendance and vendor sales, which provides important insight the economic contributions of markets, and they are collecting data on visitor spending at the market and neighboring businesses and visitor transportation to the market, which supports the program’s mission of revitalizing downtowns around the State of Wisconsin.

For more information, please see:


Annual Event: A huge thank you for making the 2018 annual conference, entitled “Funding & Social Change”, a success. The conference brought a wide range of stakeholders, community members, investors, funders, professionals, students, and professors together. A special thank you to professor Penn Loh (Tufts University) who gave a key note speech on the complexities and politics of funding for social progress, and to the over 150 attendees who made the break out sessions both exciting and insightful.

Congratulations to CommNS Affiliate Shannon Sparks, Academic Partner of the Milwaukee Consortium for Hmong Health. This organization was one of seven to receive recognition through the 2017 Community-University Partnership Awards last month. The Healthy Hmong Women project is one of the “exemplary partnerships that get to the heart of the Wisconsin Idea.”

Check out the article here:

Congratulations to CommNS Affiliate Alfonso Morales for his work with farmers’ market managers and their use of data, highlighted in this recent article. Along with graduate student Lauren Suerth, their work has supported markets in Wisconsin and across the country.

Read the full story here:


For more information or to partner with us, please contact Mary Beth Collins, Executive Director at

Mailing Address

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