Series brings nonprofit leaders, top researchers together around program evaluation

Author: Erin Blasko

Nonprofit, governmental and educational leaders from across the South Bend-Elkhart region learned about measuring impact, harnessing data and fostering positive change as part of the Fall Nonprofit Breakfast Series “Nonprofit Program Evaluation” at the University of Notre Dame.

Hosted by the Nonprofit Certificate Education (NCE) Program at the Mendoza College of Business and the Office of Public Affairs, with financial support from Community Health Partnerships, the four-part series concluded Oct. 26 with a collaborative discussion of quantitative and qualitative approaches to program evaluation.

Led by the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) at Notre Dame, the fall workshop series focused on types of evaluation, data collection and analysis, outcomes, costs and campus resources. The final session brought together LEO partners at the Eck Institute for Global Health, the Shaw Center for Children and Families, the Institute for Educational Initiatives (IEI) and the city of South Bend.

Twenty-five people from 17 organizations attended the workshop series.

A systematic method for collecting, analyzing and using data and measuring outcomes, program evaluation helps nonprofits attract funding, expand community partnerships, drive positive change, improve outcomes and efficiency and replicate and scale successful programs and policies.

Increasingly, nonprofit funders, including state and federal governments, charitable foundations and corporate donors, require program evaluation as a condition of funding.

“Program evaluation answers the most important questions in the nonprofit sector: Are we making a positive difference? And what is the ripple effect of our efforts?” said Marc Hardy, NCE director. “These answers solidify the indispensable importance of nonprofit and civic organizations in creating a better community and world

“We’re all moving toward a position where we’re looking at how our dollars are being invested,” said Sheri Niekamp, vice president of community impact with the United Way of St. Joseph County. “How are they having the most impact?”

LEO, a research center in the Department of Economics, helps answer such questions, matching top researchers with nonprofit and government providers to conduct impact evaluations that identify innovative, effective and scalable programs and policies that help people move out of poverty.

The lab is working with the city of South Bend on several initiatives, including an evaluation of a high school dropout prevention program and research design work on a pilot program for people who struggle with reliable transportation in the city. The city recently received a $1 million Bloomberg Mayors Challenge grant to expand the transportation program.

“What we’ve found is a lot of practitioners out in the community don’t have a lot of experience with evaluation or don’t have the capacity to build that expertise,” said Rachel Fulcher Dawson, associate director of research, policy and communications at LEO. “So we’ve started to do more work like this.”

The goal, Fulcher Dawson said, is to build a “culture of evaluation” within the nonprofit communities so that program evaluation becomes the rule rather than the exception.

“This is all about coming together and having the academics, the evaluators, the experts in (program evaluation) connect with the experts that are kind of boots-on-the-ground providing services, so that we can meet in the middle and better our programs without feeling so overwhelmed,” said Niekamp.

To that end, the breakfast series served to promote Notre Dame as a resource for local nonprofits, Jessica Brookshire, associate director for public affairs, said, recognizing that the University can seem intimidating or inaccessible at times to non-academics.

“Part of this program is to introduce nonprofit leaders to people on campus who they may be able to partner with, as well as to others in the nonprofit community,” Brookshire said.

The four-part series also offered opportunities for attendees to connect with their peers in the nonprofit community and build relationships across organizations.

For Christa Hill, an associate planner with the city of Mishawaka, the series offered new avenues for collaboration with Notre Dame or other community partners around issues ranging from planning and development to code enforcement.

“These programs are a hidden gem that I knew nothing about until this series,” Hill said. “I hope to find others to participate in.”

Public Affairs and Mendoza partner on a Nonprofit Breakfast Series each year, typically during the spring semester. Previous topics have included board governance, nonprofit administration and human resources. This next series, scheduled to start in February, will focus on marketing and branding.

For more information, or to view previous presentations in the series, visit

Originally published by Erin Blasko at on November 07, 2018.