Center for Community & Nonprofit Studies


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.

Inquiry & Action for Social Change

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


The CommNS Overview Video


Our Focus Areas

Focus area graphic CommNSThe 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.

There are seven (7) Focus Areas for the CommNS, which help us to connect in affinity groups pertaining to timely themes in community and nonprofit work:

  1. Sustainable Communities, Wellbeing, and Empowerment
  2. Youth Development & Civic Engagement
  3. Program Evaluation
  4. Sector Studies
  5. Community Design and Place-Making
  6. Food Systems
  7. Alternative and Solidarity Economies

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

Read our most recent newsletter.

Lussier Community Education Center (LCEC) Receives Morgridge Community Partner Award

Congratulations to the Lussier Community Education Center (LCEC) for receiving this year’s Morgridge Center for Public Service Outstanding Community Partner Award. The LCEC is a leader in authentic community engagement. Led by Paul Terranova, the LCEC takes a community first approach in their work, regularly allying with community leaders in both youth and programming services. 

Tonya Allen, Skillman Foundation Executive Director Visits.

Tonya Allen visited on March 29th, 2019 to discuss the work of the Skillman Foundation and thoughts and approaches related to last year’s annual conference theme, “Funding and Social Change”. Tonya also convened with a group of community-campus stakeholders in an open discussion about social change in the community as it relates to social giving, foundations, and community organizing. See the flyer here.

The CommNS Out At Conferences!

CommNS conference attendeesThe CommNS was busy in March sharing and learning at national conferences! For more information, please see our news page.

Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment seed grant awards. Congratulations to several CommNS staff who received Baldwin grants from the Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment seed grant. In an effort to increase the CommNS’s international presence and further current connections overseas, the CommNS’s Executive Director, Mary Beth Collins, received a grant funding the UW-Madison CommNS and Mandela Fellows Collaboration Program for Community Initiatives. The goal of this Collaboration Program is to respond to the requests of Mandela Fellows (the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative) for collaboration with and support from the CommNS and its graduate students, as well as to connect with appropriate community partners in Wisconsin who are in the CommNS network. For more information, please see the news section.

In addition to Mary Beth Collins, Amy Hilgendorf received a Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment seed grant to bolster the Morgridge-CommNS Special Initiatives (MoSCI) community-university partnership. The goal of the project is to make the university more accessible for interested community groups to build mutually-beneficial community-university partnerships. Congrats, Amy!

Past News & Events

Thank you for attending our April 24th, 2019 annual event. This year we focused on “Where Mission Meets Advocacy”. In our mission-based work in communities, in nonprofit organizations, as scholars, or in developing our skills for our future careers, we often face the need to conduct different forms of advocacy to address root causes, systems change, policy, and context. Thank you for joining us for a day of exploring advocacy to advance your mission. 

Thank you Madison365for covering this event! We were joined by partners like the Helen Bader Institute for Nonprofit Management and NLCP Peace Warriors! Click here to see the related article from Madison365. 

The CommNS annual event has been a popular and thought-provoking opportunity to explore key topics in the community and nonprofit sector with colleagues from across the campus and community. The event is open to the public and all are welcomed and encouraged to attend. 

Thank you to all who participated in our October, November, and December Lunch & Learn discussions!

Thank you for joining us on September 17th at Synergy Coworking (5201 Old Middleton Rd Madison, Wisconsin 53705) from 12:00pm to 1:30pm (CST) for a lively discussion on the definition and application of Social Entrepreneurship given by the CommNS Executive Director Mary Beth Collins.

2018 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. Stay turned for follow-ups from the CommNS about the theme and for information on our 2019 event.


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