Shining a light on nonprofits’ impact on the community
Chuck Gordon

Small, local nonprofits often find it difficult to compete for charitable dollars. In a crush of noble causes, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle.

Wingate economics students are hoping to provide them with some ammo.

As part of the University’s Collaborative for the Common Good, students in Dr. Kristin Stowe’s Economic Impact Analysis (Econ 413) class will study the economic impact of one nonprofit each year, providing them with a printed report they can use when talking to potential donors and the media. The report will show the second- and third-hand effects of the nonprofit’s work, demonstrating how economically advantageous that work is to the community at large in addition to the organization’s core constituents.

“A lot of these nonprofits, they might be able to tell you how many clients they help in a year, but what they don’t have is information on what kind of ripple effects that has,” Stowe says.

As service-learning projects go, this one might not provide an immediate emotional return on investment, but it has great long-term potential. Knowing just how much an organization’s services affect the wider community can help them tweak their operations or simply sell themselves better to their stakeholders. It can also paint a more accurate picture of the nonprofit landscape.

But in the vein of “physician, heal thyself,” before turning to a local food pantry or health clinic, the students are starting with a nonprofit extremely close to home: the University itself.

This semester, students are information on a variety of ways in which the University fiscally buoys eastern Union County. How many extra dollars flow into the area on football game days? How many jobs have the construction of new dorms created over the past few years? What impact do commuter students have on the local economy?

It won’t be easy. Students have several sources of publicly available information at their disposal, but they’ll have to dig deep for a lot of other information. For instance, the athletic department can provide data on how many people attend football and basketball games, but they don’t know how many of those people come from out of town and are spending dollars in Union County that they wouldn’t otherwise spend here.

“It’s going to be complicated,” Stowe says. “It’s definitely going to take some time and some work on the part of the students to piece everything together and to fill in some of the gaps where we as a university have some of the records, but we don’t have everything.

“I think they’ll be able to do it, but they’ll have to do a lot of the legwork and figure out what data we don’t have and what’s the best way to get it.”

Students are using software from the economic-analysis firm Implan to extrapolate the data they uncover. It’s the same software a UNC Charlotte professor used the last time a comprehensive study of Wingate University’s economic impact was undertaken, several years ago, and it will make students’ job significantly easier.

They’ll need the help, because the task is daunting – especially so in the beginning, when students will essentially be creating a template for how to conduct such research. For Stowe, the list of questions to answer is lengthy. “What are the best survey techniques?” she says. “What’s the number we need for our sample size? What’s our strategy to get a representative sample? What’s the best way to format the survey? What questions are key? The students are going to have to do some research.

“We know it’s going to come together, but we don’t know exactly how it’s going to look along the way.”

The peek that students’ hard work provides into nonprofits’ economic impact will be worth the effort.

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