SHU Boosts Community Partnerships Through Nonprofit Work

FAIRFIELD, Conn.—Catholic Charities is the largest and one of the oldest private social service providers in Connecticut, having begun its charitable works in 1916. But even the most established nonprofit organization can use a fresh pair of eyes—and insightful business acumen—from time to time, said its executive director, Michael Donoghue.

That’s where Sacred Heart University’s Center for Nonprofit Organizations comes in.

“Our staff is wonderful, and they have so much expertise, but they’re social workers and counselors, not necessarily marketing people,” said Donoghue.

That’s why he and his team turned to Sacred Heart last year for help in creating a marketing plan for its behavior health counseling services. 

Founded in 2002, the Center for Nonprofit Organizations is a training ground where Sacred Heart’s MBA candidates can make a real-world difference for Connecticut charities and the communities they serve. All MBA students complete a capstone project, applying their knowledge and skills by helping more than 135 nonprofit agencies to date achieve their goals and tackle challenges without the substantial cost consultants can have on lean budgets.

The center, which is part of SHU’s Jack Welch College of Business & Technology, receives significant annual support from Bank of America, which shares its mission for engaging the community, said Bill Hass, the center’s director. The bank’s funding, combined with funds from SHU and other donors, bolsters partnerships with nonprofits across the region, through webinars, conferences and a CEO Circle to address the needs of newer leaders, Hass said. 

Last year, Bank of America increased its support three-fold to $30,000 a year, recognizing the value and impact of the Center for Nonprofits’ project work with local nonprofit agencies and the program’s expansion from Fairfield County into New Haven County as well. The bank’s longstanding partnership is one way that Bank of America is working with nonprofit organizations addressing issues fundamental to economic mobility and social progress in low- and moderate-income communities. 

“This program is a unique workforce education model that provides an integrated way to engage students. They'll learn how to address real nonprofit challenges while bringing fresh new skills and perspectives to local agencies,” said Carol Heller, the bank's southern Connecticut market executive. “We're excited to partner in connecting local students to great agencies and empowering them to make a meaningful impact right here in our communities.”

Center for Family Justice gets a hand

Diligent teams of MBA candidates have completed invaluable projects at the Center for Family Justice (CFJ) in Bridgeport over the years. Most recently, they researched and recommended public awareness efforts and best practices as the center worked to fund and create a safe house for women and children affected by domestic abuse, said the nonprofit’s CEO/president, Debra Greenwood.

“Having that safe house will be life-changing for some,” Greenwood said. “I know how impactful these projects can be, and the students knocked it out of the park.”

Jennifer Kolakowski, CEO of Recovery Network of Programs, turned to SHU for assistance when her organization wanted to gain insight on its withdrawal management program during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were looking for insight on how to better serve our community by increasing not only utilization rates but also capacity,” Kolakowski said. 

The SHU team completed a market analysis and was able to create real tools for boosting public awareness. Bringing in the student team was cost-effective and meant fresh perspectives and ideas. “The students are so bright and enthusiastic,” she said. 

SHU graduate students also created a comprehensive plan for Catholic Charities, suggesting social media components and SEO and Google analytics data to boost the behavioral health counseling efforts, Donoghue said. “They gave us a good road map. They definitely left us with a great plan, and we’re implementing it.”

For some students, the experience is a way to gauge their long-term interest in nonprofit work. The opportunities are there: since 2018, there have been 12 top nonprofit CEOs who retired in Bridgeport alone, Hass said. 

Kaley Bohling of Princeton, NJ, graduated with her MBA with a concentration in accounting in 2021. She also received her bachelor's degree from SHU in management and accounting in 2020.

Bohling completed her capstone with a team of five focused on The Exceptional Sidekick, a Newtown-based nonprofit providing service dogs specifically trained for teens and young adults with psychiatric disabilities. The SHU team created long- and short-term fundraising plans for the organization—from supermarket rounding-up programs to car raffles and movie nights. 

"It was really great to put all my skills together," said Bohling, who now works for Deloitte. "We created a specialized plan. We were able to use our brain power to make a difference."

In turn, the center forms bonds with nonprofit leaders who might be able to speak on campus, mentor students or work with Hass and newer CEO—many of whom are promoted from within their organizations—on their own challenges.

“We work as a group to address key issues and challenges these young CEOs are experiencing,” Hass said. “This is really an opportunity to learn from each other.”

Bank of America’s a funding has increased participation among New Haven-area CEOs and organizations. During 2020’s spring semester, students completed seven projects in New Haven. 

“Part of the mission of Sacred Heart is to connect with the community,” Hass said. “We’re really reaching out in a more significant way.”


About Sacred Heart University

As the second-largest independent Catholic university in New England, and one of the fastest-growing in the U.S., Sacred Heart University is a national leader in shaping higher education for the 21st century. SHU offers nearly 90 undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and certificate programs on its Fairfield, Conn., campus. Sacred Heart also has satellites in Connecticut, Luxembourg and Ireland and offers online programs. More than 9,000 students attend the University’s nine colleges and schools: Arts & Sciences; Communication, Media & the Arts; Social Work; Computer Science & Engineering; Health Professions; the Isabelle Farrington College of Education; the Jack Welch College of Business & Technology; the Dr. Susan L. Davis, R.N., & Richard J. Henley College of Nursing; and St. Vincent’s College. Sacred Heart stands out from other Catholic institutions as it was established and led by laity. The contemporary Catholic university is rooted in the rich Catholic intellectual tradition and the liberal arts, and at the same time cultivates students to be forward thinkers who enact change—in their own lives, professions and in their communities. The Princeton Review includes SHU in its Best 387 Colleges–2022 Edition, “Best Northeastern” and Best Business Schools–2021 Edition. Sacred Heart is home to the award-winning, NPR-affiliated radio station, WSHU, a Division I athletics program and an impressive performing arts program that includes choir, band, dance and theatre.