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CONNECT Pairs Skilled Grad Students with Nonprofits Who Need Them

Project Overview

As nonprofits take on increasingly complex social challenges, they need access to quality data to make a bigger difference in the lives of those they serve. Robust data analyses, program evaluations, and research are crucial for organizations to gauge if they are having the impact they seek to achieve and to inform their strategy along the way. But many nonprofits lack the necessary resources to tackle these efforts.

CONNECT, developed by the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the University of Texas at Austin, is working to remove those barriers. The program pairs organizations with master and doctoral students seeking an opportunity to apply their research and analysis skills. This helps nonprofit teams get the support they need while giving future social sector leaders valuable experience measuring social impact.

Our CONNECT Fellow’s work provided a wealth of useful information that will positively impact the Dana Center for many years to come. The Center learned that CONNECT is one of the best programs the university has to offer.

Afi Y. Wiggins, Ph.D., Director, Program Evaluation and Research, Charles A. Dana Center

How it Helps

While most senior nonprofit executives (71%) believe outcomes measurement is important, and 76% rank it as a top priority for their organization, only 20% say they’re very effective at demonstrating outcomes. And when asked about obstacles to measurement, executives cited lack of staff, lack of tracking systems, and data silos. .

Unfortunately, this is a catch-22. Without the resources to accurately quantify outcomes, it can be challenging for organizations to secure the grants they need to scale their staff, invest in tracking technology, and develop the more sophisticated data capture and analysis that will help them better serve their bottom-line mission.

But, as CONNECT demonstrates, students in a range of graduate degree programs are eager to apply their outcomes measurement skills and grow their working knowledge in a real-world setting. While many courses are structured as team experiences, this program enables students individually and helps them foster professional relationships that can translate into job opportunities. At the same time, nonprofit organizations benefit from students’ expertise by establishing sustainable methods for measuring program performance and using data to drive decisions.

CONNECT achieves its results through a five-step process:

  1. An organization completes a brief form detailing its data challenge; the CONNECT team then consults with them to collaboratively scope their challenge into a short-term project
  2. CONNECT evaluates the project and matches the organization with a student who has relevant interests, skills and experience 
  3. CONNECT sends the organization information on their student match 
  4. If the organization accepts the match, CONNECT meets with the organization to discuss deliverables and milestones 
  5. CONNECT monitors progress for the entire project and provides customized support to both the student and organization 

All CONNECT Fellows are awarded a fellowship to recognize their participation in the program.

After demonstrating tremendous success supporting nonprofit organizations throughout Central Texas, CONNECT is being piloted at The University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs and the University of Texas at Dallas’ School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences.

The mutually beneficial model of connecting university grad students in relevant programs with local organizations has the power to solve one of the nonprofit sector’s greatest hurdles. And providing the next cohort of nonprofit leaders with experience in outcomes measurement ensures a stable, sustainable, and far-reaching solution.

Foundation Project Lead