Photograph of six people sitting in a circle in a meeting room.
Photograph of a woman speaking to several individuals sitting in a meeting room.
Photograph of VISTA volunteers and persons experiencing homelessness sitting at long rows of tables in a meeting room.
Photograph of a discussion leader standing in a large meeting room where approximately 20 people are seated at two long tables decorated with the flags of Lithuania, Poland, Spain, the United Kingdom, and other European countries.
Photograph of five people seated at a small table on a stage participating in a show of hands with the audience during a presentation.

 

Home >Case Studies >The University of Central Florida Pursues a High Return on Engagement

 

The University of Central Florida Pursues a High Return on Engagement

 

The University of Central Florida (UCF) boasts that it is “America’s Partnership University.” This is particurly evident in the mission and activities of the College of Health and Public Affairs’ Center for Public and Nonprofit Management. Professors and students at the center undertake training, research, and service projects that support communities within UCF’s 11-county focus area as well as throughout the world. The center seeks to achieve a high “return on engagement,” which is both an operating philosophy and a method of measuring success that takes into account short- and long-term changes in policies, programs, and behaviors that result from the center’s efforts.

The Center for Public and Nonprofit Management

UCF is one of 12 public universities in Florida; its 1,415-acre primary campus is located 13 miles east of downtown Orlando. UCF has an enrollment of approximately 63,000 students, making it the second-largest university in the United States. The university participates in numerous partnerships with the surrounding community and maintains many centers dedicated to community work, one of which is the Center for Public and Nonprofit Management. After helping to build the capacity of nonprofit organizations for five years, UCF established the center in 2008 to assist both nonprofit and governmental entities. The center’s mission is twofold: to train nonprofits and governments in methods to engage and solicit feedback from the public, and to prepare students and citizens to be actively involved in public affairs, according to Thomas Bryer, associate professor and center director. Bryer says that the center aims to bridge the often large gap between technical experts – whether in academia, government, industry, or elsewhere – and the general public by educating and learning from both the experts and the community. Rather than focusing on financial gain, material achievement, or short-term success when assessing return on engagement, the center considers whether community members have participated willingly and openly and whether professors, staff, and students have been involved and learned from the experience.

The center is organized around four core research areas that reflect faculty research interests as well as aspects of effective government and nonprofit services: democracy and civic engagement, collaborative governance, diversity andinclusiveness, and sustainability. In the core areas of democracy and diversity, the center proposes strategies and technologies for public participation to create civically healthy communities that meet residents’ basic needs. In its work on collaborative governance, the center helps to structure relationships across sectors, organizations, leaders, and the general public to create positive collective impact. For the core area of sustainability, the center promotes the strength and efficacy of public policies and programs over time.

Communities throughout the 11 counties served by UCF have equal access to the center’s assistance. Bryer notes, however, that because it assists with pressing issues such as homelessness, nutrition assistance, poverty, and access to public transportation, the center often works with impoverished neighborhoods. Bryer highlights two practices that help ensure that the center is responsive to all communities’ needs. First, communities that request assistance become partners with the center rather than consumers of the research; community members help design the research activities and communicate the findings to others. Second, the center’s leaders have made themselves available to travel throughout the area to attend meetings and give presentations on issues that are important to the communities.

Assisting Homeless Students

One example of the center’s work in the core area of diversity and inclusiveness was its sponsorship of an AmeriCorps VISTA project, although this wide-ranging effort actually spanned all four core areas. Between 2012 and 2016, the center established a VISTA project that addressed the needs of Central Florida’s 12,000 students who are experiencing homelessness. The VISTA project’s goal was to help local organizations to better serve youth experiencing homelessness, who can suffer from numerous emotional, physical, and mental health problems and may struggle to succeed academically.

The center’s objectives with the VISTA project were to train VISTA members to work with community organizations and homeless youth as well as to build service agencies’ capacity, increase cooperation, and decrease duplication of services. To better serve K–12 students experiencing homelessness, the center placed 39 VISTA members, including 19 UCF students, at the university or at the school districts, homeless shelters, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations in Orange and Seminole counties. For example, the center worked with Seminole County’s Families in Transition program as well as with school programs in Orange and Seminole counties created to comply with the McKinney-Vento Act. The VISTA members also recruited 639 volunteers to work in the service organizations, and the project expanded to assist K–12 students in Brevard County and university students at UCF experiencing homelessness. On average, the VISTA members and volunteers served 8,000 K–12 students per year, enrolling the students in assistance programs, directing them to homeless shelters, or identifying them in tracking systems for critical service interventions.

Helping Children Safely Walk to School

Bryer also cites the local implementation of the Walking School Bus as an effort that spanned research areas but exemplified the center’s core area of collaborative governance. The Walking School Bus is a national effort to help groups of elementary school students, accompanied by one or more adults, safely walk to school. This initiative is especially important for Central Florida, where children living within two miles of their schools are not provided bus service. Between 2013 and 2015, the center partnered with elementary schools in several communities to gather parental input, map walking routes, and help volunteers undertake those activities. Although the center is still evaluating how the project has affected children’s physical health and academic performance as well as student and parent awareness about pedestrian safety, the effort helped more than 850 youth walk to school safely, and it fostered collaboration among school districts, health agencies, churches, local businesses, and parents. The project has also inspired some communities to request the center’s assistance with related tasks, such as assessing the walkability of routes to schools, particularly in lower income areas.

An Expanding Reach

The center’s effectiveness in engaging Central Florida communities has encouraged the organization to expand its service area. Bryer notes that the center now provides capacity-building assistance to governments and nonprofits nationally and internationally. Since 2013, the center has been a service provider for the International City/County Management Association’s Center for Management Strategies, which involves consulting with local governments on methods for engaging the public. In addition, the center has provided civic-engagement training to local governments in Lithuania since 2015.

UCF’s Center for Public and Nonprofit Management is expanding its research agenda by encouraging researchers and professors to form community partnerships and create new initiatives that do not conform to the four core research areas. Bryer notes that the center will support all new initiatives that include community members as partners and provide a return on engagement to both the community and the university within three years. One such program, a component of the center’s civic-engagement training in Lithuania, is an initiative with the municipal training center at Kaunas University of Technology to examine how local governments can effectively use volunteers to address pressing issues in cities, such as homelessness and youth delinquency. Bryer hopes that expanding research opportunities will help the center better adapt to the needs of the communities it serves and empower faculty members and students to pursue research directions that match their expertise and passion.


 

Source:

University of Central Florida. 2015. “Partnerships drive progress of UCF, community.” Accessed 7 July 2016; University of Central Florida. n.d. “Center for Public and Nonprofit Management.” Accessed 7 July 2016; University of Central Florida. 2003. “UCF Campuses.” Accessed 20 July 2016; Interview with Thomas Bryer, associate professor and director of the Center for Public and Nonprofit Management, 18 July 2016; Email correspondence from Thomas Bryer, 2 August 2016.

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University of Central Florida. n.d. “UCF Facts.” Accessed 20 July 2016; University of Central Florida. 2015. “Partnerships drive progress of UCF, community.” Accessed 7 July 2016; Interview with Thomas Bryer, 18 July 2016; Email correspondence from Thomas Bryer, 2 August 2016. ×

Source:

University of Central Florida. n.d. “Center for Public and Nonprofit Management.” Accessed 7 July 2016; University of Central Florida. n.d. “Democracy & Civic Engagement.” Accessed 7 July 2016; University of Central Florida. n.d. “Collaborative Governance.” Accessed 7 July 2016; University of Central Florida. n.d. “Diversity & Inclusiveness.” Accessed 7 July 2016; University of Central Florida. n.d. “Sustainability.” Accessed 7 July 2016; Interview with Thomas Bryer, 8 July 2016.

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Interview with Thomas Bryer, 18 July 2016.

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University of Central Florida. n.d. “Special Projects.” Accessed 7 July 2016; University of Central Florida. 2013. “UCF Vista Project Enhances Seminole County's Ability to Serve Homeless Students,” blog, 26 April. Accessed 20 July 2016; Interview with Thomas Bryer, 18 July 2016; Email correspondence from Thomas Bryer, 2 August 2016.

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University of Central Florida. n.d. “Special Projects.” Accessed 7 July 2016; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research. 2014. “Protecting Children From Unhealthy Homes and Housing Instability,”Evidence Matters (Fall). Accessed 12 February 2016; University of Central Florida. 2013. “UCF Vista Project Enhances Seminole County's Ability to Serve Homeless Students,” blog, 26 April. Accessed 20 July 2016; Interview with Thomas Bryer, 18 July 2016; Email correspondence from Thomas Bryer, 2 August 2016.

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University of Central Florida. n.d. “Special Projects.” Accessed 7 July 2016; University of Central Florida. 2013. “‘Walking School Bus’ Makes Trips to School Safer, Healthier,” Colleges and Campus News, 27 August. Accessed 9 August 2016; National Center for Safe Routes to School of the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center. n.d. “Starting a Walking School Bus: The Basics.” Accessed 9 August 2016; University of Central Florida. 2015. “Walking School Bus Program Makes Its Final Stop.” Accessed 9 August 2016; Email correspondence from Thomas Bryer, 2 August 2016; University of Central Florida. 2015. “CPNM Director Beginning Fulbright Award in Lithuania,” Public Administration FOCUS 2014–2015, 10:13–4. Accessed 11 August 2016.

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Source:

Interview with Thomas Bryer, 18 July 2016; University of Central Florida. n.d. “Democracy & Civic Engagement.” Accessed 7 July 2016; International City/County Management Association, Center for Management Strategies. n.d. “The Center for Public and Nonprofit Management at the University of Central Florida.” Accessed 7 July 2016; University of Central Florida. 2015. “CPNM Director Beginning Fulbright Award in Lithuania,” Public Administration FOCUS 2014–2015, 10:13–4. Accessed 11 August 2016. ×

Source:

Interview with Thomas Bryer, 18 July 2016.

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