2017 Cohort, National Service and Civic Engagement Research Competition

In 2017, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) awarded research grants to a second cohort of institutions of higher education. The awards support dissertators conducting their Ph.D. research, or scholars, researchers, and postdoctoral researchers with a proven track record and standing in their respective fields. The 2017 awardees included four dissertators and nine scholars.

Click on each grantee’s name to learn more about their CNCS funded research.

Arizona State University

A 2003 study titled “Survey on the Capacity of the Volunteer Infrastructure of Local Nonprofit Organization” asked a simple question: do nonprofit organizations have policies and procedures in place to maximize the experience and contributions of their volunteers? The study coined the term “volunteer management capacity” as a measurement of an organization’s capacity to effectively recruit and retain volunteers. Now, Dr. Mark Hager, Arizona State University, and Dr. Jeffery Brudney, University of North Carolina Wilmington, are using this operative concept to continue research under their 2017 National Service and Civic Engagement Research grant from CNCS.

The research team comprised of members from both schools are returning to the original nonprofit sample from the 2003 study to see how volunteer management capacity has evolved in these organizations over time. This sample will be supplemented with organizations that were founded after the original study to gain a current picture of the state of volunteer management capacity in nonprofit organizations across the United States. A web survey will provide the core data.

The focus will be on the organizational characteristics and practices associated with effective and productive volunteer management. The findings based on this analysis will be a resource to practitioners and policymakers who are reorganizing work to create economic opportunity in disadvantaged communities. It will also contribute to the broader conversation about redesigning civic infrastructure to reinvigorate American democracy.

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California State University, San Marcos

The National Latino Research Center (NLRC) is an applied research center at California State University, San Marcos (CSUSM) that engaged in community, culturally relevant, and participatory research methods. The researchers at NLRC successfully conducted research in the areas of education, civic engagement, youth justice, health, and disaster preparedness with a track record for outreach and credibility in the community.

Through a 2017 National Service and Civic Engagement Research grant, Drs. Marisol Clark-Ibanez and Arcela Nunez-Alvarez are conducting one of the largest mixed-method studies on volunteering and civic engagement among Latino elders. The study examines the impact of participation in a 10-week civic engagement class called Cultivando Sabiduría (Cultivating Wisdom) specifically created for low-income, Spanish-speaking Latino elders with little or no formal education. Pre- and post-tests to study 150 Latino participants will demonstrate how an individual’s civic engagement changes over the course of a lifetime. The study seeks to understand the impacts associated with civic engagement, volunteering, and national service.

The study’s goal is to develop methodological and theoretical innovations to help understand the economic, social, and health benefits of volunteering and civic engagement for Latino elders. The NLRC seeks to highlight the strength and resilience embodied by the participants. The results will be important to regional and national stakeholders who are committed to facilitating greater opportunities for lifelong volunteering and civic engagement, while also having the potential to inform more targeted program development.

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Clemson University

Matthew Hudson-Flege, a recent PhD graduate in the International Family & Community Studies program at Clemson University, received a 2017 National Service and Civic Engagement Research grant. Advised by Dr. Martie Thompson, a Professor in the Department of Youth, Family, and Community Studies and the Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life, Hudson-Flege examined the long-term impact of AmeriCorps service for diverse groups of members. His goal was to better understand the AmeriCorps members so he could make suggestions that would allow the organization to improve the member experience and effective recruitment practices. 

Analyses of the 1999-2007 AmeriCorps Longitudinal Study have demonstrated lasting, positive outcomes for members in the areas of civic engagement, education, employment, and life skills, but AmeriCorps members were typically considered as one homogenous group. This dissertation sought to address the knowledge gap by answering the following research questions through a secondary analysis of the AmeriCorps Longitudinal Study:

  • What types of diverse members serve in AmeriCorps?
  • How do outcome trajectories differ among diverse member profiles?

A cluster analysis generated four distinct profiles of AmeriCorps members: Young Idealists (recent high school grads with high public service motivation); Wanderers (19-20 year olds with low/moderate public service motivation); Gappers (recent college grads with low/moderate public service motivation); and Public Servants (recent college grads with high public service motivation). All four groups demonstrated positive growth in civic engagement outcomes; however, outcomes in other areas were mixed among the profiles. AmeriCorps therefore appears successful in fostering civic engagement among diverse volunteers, but member recruitment and retention efforts should be tailored to meet the needs of these diverse groups. Drs. Hudson-Flege and Thompson are currently expanding this research to include more recent survey data, as well as individual interviews with AmeriCorps alumni.

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Trustees of Indiana University - Effects of Volunteering

With roots dating back to 1820, Indiana University (IU) is a school steeped in history, and CNCS is no stranger to their work. In 2010, IU published a Service Learning Research Primer based upon work supported by CNCS under Learn and Serve Clearinghouse. The 2017 National Service and Civic Engagement Research grant to IU’s Board of Trustees presents another opportunity for the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy to conduct research that impacts national service and volunteering.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 4.9 million (or 12 percent) of American youth between the ages of 16 and 24 were disconnected (i.e. neither working nor in school) in 2015 (Measure of America, 2017). Without social networks and support provided by school or work, disconnected youth are more vulnerable to social and economic risks and may face greater challenges accessing opportunities in adulthood. This study, led by Drs. Una Osili and Sara Konrath, will examine whether volunteerism during adolescence is associated with an increased likelihood of productive activity later in life during early adulthood, especially among socially and/or economically disadvantaged youth. The study posits that volunteering can provide access to job and education opportunities through social networks and improved health – thus reducing economic and social inequality.

The findings suggest that parental role modeling and gender are both strong predictors of volunteering and charitable giving among adolescents and volunteering among young adults, controlling for other variables that may affect volunteering and giving. By contrast, the Great Recession negatively predicts charitable giving by adolescents and volunteering by young adults, controlling for other factors. The findings also suggest that volunteering in adolescence positively predicts productive activity (i.e., employment and college enrollment) during young adulthood. Volunteering in adolescence is positively associated with volunteering and better health in young adulthood. Additional analysis will address the remaining two research questions.

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Trustees of Indiana University - Civil Society Organizations

The School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) is a nationally ranked academic institution located on the campus of Indiana University (IU). SPEA brings together management skills, science, policy analysis, and the humanities, with a focus on governing, managing, and leading. Drs. Matthew Baggetta and Brad Fulton received a 2017 National Service and Civic Engagement Research grant from the CNCS to lead a project that will use an innovative data collection technique – systematic social observation – to analyze the internal dynamics of civil society organizations (CSOs).  

Despite the widespread presence and prominent role of CSOs in U.S. communities, little is known about their internal workings or how these internal dynamics affect organizations' outcomes. The researchers seek to introduce a systematic means of measuring how people interact within CSOs, and how these interactions can strengthen civic infrastructure in organizations, promote civic engagement by individuals, and improve the quality of life in communities. Through a pilot study in Indianapolis, IN, the study will expand, refine, and test a new tool for observing and analyzing the internal dynamics of CSOs.

At present, the study is testing the relationship between formality of meetings and organizational outcomes. While data collection is in progress, preliminary findings show the frequency of formal meetings. Among the 50 observations where discussions occurred, 23 (46 percent) were free form, 21 (42 percent) were a blend of formal and free form, and 6 (12 percent) used a formal discussion structure.

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University of California, Los-Angeles

The University of California, Los-Angeles (UCLA) Luskin School of Public Affairs sits at the convergence of social work, urban planning, and public policy. The school identifies and develops emerging areas of research and teaching, cultivating leaders and change agents who advance solutions to society’s most pressing problems.

Two faculty members in the social welfare department of the school – Drs. Laura Wray-Lake and Laura Abrams – received a 2017 National Service and Civic Engagement Research grant to further their research on community service and activism among low-income, urban youth. The two-year study will advance theory and research by generating new understanding of what youth engagement looks like in low-income, urban contexts and how risks and assets shape urban youth civic engagement.

The study will look at the city of Rochester, NY, which has a high concentration of poverty, stark racial segregation, large high school dropout rates, and high crime in the city’s center. The study sample is comprised of 88 high-school aged youth of color, who completed a short survey on civic engagement and demographics, followed by a 30-45 minute semi-structured interview. Researchers will transcribe the interviews verbatim. They then develop codes via an inductive, multi-phase, consensus-building process, and they will use a focused coding procedure to fully code transcripts. Finally, researchers will analyze themes via analytic memo-writing.

The study results in the following conclusions:

  • Civic engagement: Youth were engaged in the following types of activities: 1) community helping behaviors (community clean-up, helping neighbors, helping the less fortunate, mentoring peers or children, intervening to protect peers and to prevent emergencies); 2) political engagement as political voice (speaking out and working to address community problems) and political news consumption; 3) engagement in school and community organizations (e.g., clubs, programs, church groups); and 4) social and leisure activities (e.g., block parties, festivals).
  • Civic empowerment: Aligned with empowerment theory, the study identified instances of emotional, cognitive, and relational civic empowerment. Emotional and relational empowerment most directly related to civic action.
  • Barriers to civic engagement: Eighty-three percent of youth noted community violence as a major community problem, which can be a significant barrier to civic engagement. Other community-level barriers to civic engagement included racism and poverty.
  • Adult support: Youth described general support from parents, teachers, and recreation center staff and how these strategies help youth feel civically empowered and engaged. Youth were equally articulate about how adults fail to support their positive development, and noted themes of judgment, negative stereotypes, and not feeling heard.

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University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work & University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work

Drs. Nicole Nicotera, Amanda Moore McBride, Suzanne Pritzker, and Yolanda (Yoli) Anyon are leading the study, “Civic Engagement Through the Voices of Latino/a Youth: Exploring Definitions, Supports, and Barriers.” This study seeks to better understand how Latino/a youth conceptualize civic engagement, what supports and encourages them to be involved, what obstacles keep them from being involved, and how they think young people in general could be supported to engage civically.

This study, situated in Houston and Denver, uses participatory research methods to understand Latino/a youth voice on definitions, barriers, and supports of civic engagement. Leveraging partnerships with community organizations focused on positive youth development and civic engagement, the study will recruit 16 youth as co-researchers who will help design and facilitate focus groups with their peers. Methods include focus groups and active youth co-researcher involvement in study design, as well as co-facilitating focus groups, data analysis, and data interpretation.

Preliminary analyses indicate that Latino/a youth define civic engagement in two fundamental ways. First, as individual involvement such as helping others, participating in things that one thinks matter, speaking or standing up, and being aware or informed. The second is collective action to solve a problem such as marches, protests, and community service projects. The findings also suggest that a range of factors shape how Latino/a youth act civically, and that many of these systems act as both facilitators and barriers to civic engagement. Those factors include:

  • Individual (e.g., lived experiences, personal assets/liabilities, feelings, emotions, and personal motivations)
  • Family (e.g., family member encouragement and parental concerns related to involvement in civic engagement activities)
  • Peers (e.g., friends with shared ideas or commitment and concerns about the perceptions of unengaged peers) 
  • Schools (e.g., access to information about civic engagement at school and pressures to achieve academically) 
  • Neighborhood (e.g., opportunities for civic engagement and community adults’ disregard for youth’s contributions)
  • Social-cultural context (e.g., positive and negative influences from the media and dominant cultural norms)
  • Economic context (e.g., constraints and facilitators tied to financial resources, employment, and transportation)  
  • Political context (e.g., encouraging and discouraging experiences with policies, political figures, and the political environment) 

Taken together, these preliminary findings suggest that Latino/a youth civic engagement are influenced by complex ecology of dynamic and interrelated factors that operate at multiple levels.

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University of Georgia

Dr. Rebecca Nesbit, from the Department of Public Administration and Policy at the University of Georgia, and Dr. Laurie Paarlberg, from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, are recipients of a 2017 National Service and Civic Engagement Competition Research grant from CNCS. Their goal was to examine the determinants of rural and urban volunteering.

Public policy increasingly depends upon voluntary action to address local issues, yet local capacity for voluntary action differs significantly across the country. This project explores the place-based determinants (various factors unique to a specific location) of differences in volunteering behavior between rural and urban respondents by accessing the confidential Current Population Survey volunteering data, supplemented by existing administrative records and county-level census and demographic data. The study will analyze this unique dataset in a secure Census Bureau Research Data Center using a multi-level modeling approach with lagged community variables.

Analyzing the full population of CPS respondents across multiple years will enable researchers to understand how changing community dynamics affects volunteering and generalizes results to both rural and urban contexts. The preliminary findings indicate that rurality matters. Rural respondents are more likely to volunteer for secular organizations and volunteer more hours. Community characteristics are also important, although they matter more for the likelihood of volunteering than the hours volunteered. The effect of individual characteristics on volunteering vary across rural and urban communities. In particular, individual resources (e.g. education, employment) are more strongly related to volunteering in rural places than they are in urban places, suggesting that the value of personal resources is different depending on an individual’s community context.

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University of Maine

Using funding from their 2017 National Service and Civic Engagement Competition Research grant, PhD graduate student Jennifer Crittenden, and her doctoral advisor, Dr. Sandra Butler, at the University of Maine are exploring older adults’ changing roles in Juggling Multiple Roles: An Examination of Role Conflict.

As the nature of the "retirement years" continues to change in our society, older adults are increasingly occupying productive roles within their families, workplaces, and communities creating the opportunity for conflict of time and energy resources. The volunteer management sector is now faced with a critical task of engaging older adults who are increasingly giving of their time and talents to multiple life endeavors (roles). Specifically, the proposed project will utilize a national sample of current Senior Corps Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) volunteers to examine the extent to which older adult volunteers experience role conflict between their volunteer role and other social roles they occupy.

  • This exploratory study will examine the following research questions: 
  • Does the conflict between work, caregiving, informal helping roles, and volunteer roles predict role satisfaction and intention to leave volunteerism among older adults?
  • What are the compensatory strategies used by older adults to navigate role conflict? 
  • What benefits do older adults accrue in their volunteer roles that could effectively counterbalance role conflict?

Preliminary results found support for both role strain and role enhancement among the volunteers surveyed. Specifically, the study found that role conflict was a significant predicator of volunteer satisfaction among those who hold multiple life roles. The study also found that the number of roles held outside of formal volunteering was a significant predicator of volunteer participation. Significant differences were found between workers and non-workers and caregivers and non-caregivers with regard to their role conflict levels. Additional findings add to the growing body of research surrounding the benefits of volunteering, such as caregiving knowledge and skill, increased socialization for caregivers, new work-related skills and networking for workers.

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University of Michigan

Aixa Marchand is a PhD candidate in the Combined Program in Education and Psychology at the University of Michigan’s School of Education who received a 2017 National Service and Civic Engagement Research grant. Advised by Dr. Matthew Diemer, a professor of developmental psychology at the university, Marchand is seeking to understand how race influences Black parents’ experience and participation within the public education system.

Although there are decades of research noting the positive benefits of parent involvement, Black parents are often viewed as uninvolved in their children’s education. Using Critical Race Theory to understand how race influences Black parents’ participation within the public educational system, this mixed-method study will explore Black parents’ critical consciousness. That critical consciousness is conceptualized as an extension of civic engagement that encompasses activities performed to benefit the academic success of their children.

The study grouped qualitative themes under three domains that align with the theoretical framing of the project: cognitions, motivations, and actions. The cognitive domain maps on to whether parents made individual or structural attributions to the way they think about education and social inequalities. The motivational domain includes beliefs and values, personal motivation, influence of past, efficacy, and role construction, all of which influences the way parents view their role in their children’s education or explain their underlying motivations for their actions. Finally, the action domain consists of critical parent engagement such as situational advocacy and racial socialization, and traditional parent engagement, which consists of school-based involvement and messages of academic socialization.

Results from the qualitative study were used to create a new measure of Black parents’ critical analysis of educational inequities. Factor analyses concluded that a five-factor solution fit the data best. The five factors were: 1) structural attributions, 2) group participation, 3) efficacy, 4) individual attributions, and 5) school-based involvement.

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University of Texas at Austin

University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) is a public research university and major center for academic research. Home to more than 51,000 students and 3,000 teaching faculty, UT Austin is one of the top 20 public universities, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Dr. Pamela Paxton, professor of sociology and public affairs at UT Austin, received a 2017 National Service and Civic Engagement Research grant to study nonprofits, civic infrastructure, and health and wellbeing. Using IRS data on 1.6 million nonprofit tax forms between 2010 and 2016, the project is creating a database of thousands of measures of nonprofit finances, expenditures, mission, capacity, and leadership. Then, through aggregation and text-analytics techniques, the project will create county- and city-level measures of civic infrastructure such as volunteerism, nonprofit capacity, and area mission focus based on features of the nonprofits in the community.

The project will explore such questions as:

  • How can we better measure and assess the civic infrastructure provided by nonprofit organizations?
  • Do large nonprofits or nonprofits that use more volunteers produce greater benefits to the communities they serve?
  • Do nonprofits that stress the positive in their mission statements attract more donors and volunteers?

Results show that positive emotion expressed by a nonprofit is often associated with higher donations and volunteers, especially if the work of the nonprofit relates to social bonding. For some types of nonprofits, combining positive emotion with negative emotion is most effective in producing volunteers. The team also showed that volunteers, organizational field, and self-identification of religiosity are all associated with nonprofit levels of donations. Further, the team provided new estimates of religion in the nonprofit sector, showing that organizations with a religious identity are about 15 percent of all nonprofits and that there are approximately 500,000 religious and religiously-identified organizations in the U.S.

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University of Wisconsin-Madison

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Laura Schlachter, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Community & Environmental Sociology and Department of Sociology, and Dr. Jane L. Collins, a faculty in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology, are working on the study “Reevaluating the Workplace-Civic Engagement Relationship.”

Using a 2017 National Service and Civic Engagement Research grant from CNCS, the research leverages original survey and interview data to address questions about the relationship between workplace organization and civic engagement during one’s lifetime. Specifically, the researchers will analyze whether participatory forms of workplace organizations can be used a strategy to increase civic engagement. They will answer the following questions:

  • How do civic engagement levels of non-cooperative and cooperative workers compare?
  • What firm- and individual-level characteristics are associated with cooperative workers' levels of volunteering and voting outside the workplace?
  • How do cooperative workers' trajectories of employment and civic engagement intersect over the life course?

Overall, 39 percent of Worker Co-op Census survey respondents reported volunteering, 68 percent reported participating in at least one type of civic engagement, and 70 percent reported voting in the previous year. The study finds a positive and robust association between participation in the workplace and participation in civic life off the clock in this sample of workers. Analysis of qualitative interviews and a matched sample of workers in standard workplaces is in progress.

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Virginia Commonwealth University

The VCU Center on Society and Health is an academic research center that studies the health implications of social factors such as education, income, neighborhood and community environmental conditions, and public policy. Dr. Emily Zimmerman is leading the “Resident Leadership and Local Capacity Building: Volunteerism in Disadvantaged Communities” study using a 2017 National Service and Civic Engagement Research grant to explore the characteristics of neighborhood?based and regional volunteers and organizations in the East End neighborhood of Richmond, VA.

The mixed methods research will focus on how the personal characteristics and volunteer activities of neighborhood-based and regional volunteers differ, whether there is synergy between the efforts of neighborhood-based and regional volunteers and organizations, and how these groups maximize collaboration with neighborhood-based volunteers, leaders, and organizations. It will also help to identify best practices for regional volunteers and organizations working in economically disadvantaged communities.

This study aims to contribute to knowledge about the processes and impact of volunteering. The findings can provide important information for organizations recruiting volunteers to work either within their own neighborhoods or to work in other areas – as all CNCS programs do – making findings potentially informative for enhancing how organizations engage communities with volunteers.

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