Service Learning

Public Relations Strategies For Non-Profits

A Partnership Between CommunityWorx And UNC-Chapel Hill Students

August 2019

CommunityWorx is passionate about building collaborative partnerships that serve as catalysts for equity, innovation and empowerment in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community. That’s why they partnered with students enrolled in Marshele Carter’s MEJO 490: Cause Communications at UNC Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Cause Communications is a service-learning course at the Hussman School in which students learn the importance of nonprofit communications through classroom instruction, guest lectures and hands-on community partnerships. The course was created and is taught by Marshéle Carter, an adjunct professor with over 30 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. This semester’s cohort included 35 students from across various majors and with an assortment of nonprofit-related experiences. The Fall 2019 edition of Cause Communications marked the second time in which the course was offered and the second time in which CommunityWorx was a partner for the course’s service-learning component.

In August, CommunityWorx Chief Operating Officer Erik Valera visited the class to educate students about the opportunity and achievement gaps in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community and to present their service-learning assignment for the semester. Valera tasked the students with developing public relations strategies for local nonprofits to engage with “grass-top” stakeholders. He explained that since these stakeholders have high professional and/or political profiles, they are the best potential partners for nonprofits fighting opportunity gaps in our community. As a result, Valera asked the students to research multiple “grass-top” groups and prepare communications recommendations based on their findings to share with local nonprofit leaders.

Over the next few months, the students conducted demographic and psychographic research on seven key “grass-top” groups, including local business partners, elected government officials, non-elected officials, philanthropists, real estate investors, UNC-CH faculty members and UNC-CH healthcare administrators. The students also examined external case studies to identify effective strategies involving “grass-top” groups in other areas across the country dealing with substantial opportunity and achievement gaps. Using their research findings, the students then developed high-level communications recommendations for nonprofits seeking to reach any, or all, of the aforementioned “grass-top” groups.

As a culmination of their research, the students planned an event to share their findings and engage in round-table discussions with local nonprofit leaders. Since the event was aimed at cultivating dialogue between the students, nonprofits and “grass-top” groups, the students named the event “Carolina Cultivates.” “Carolina Cultivates” was held on November 21 at YouthWorx on Main in Carrboro and was attended by nonprofit leaders from various organizations across the community. Former Chapel Hill Mayor Howard N. Lee was also in attendance and served as the event’s keynote speaker. The students then led discussions focusing on their assigned “grass-top” groups and allowed attendees to interact with their research. Each attendee received a “resource folder” with handouts detailing the students’ research findings and recommendations for communicating with potential “grass-top” collaborators.

While “Carolina Cultivates” served as the conclusion of the students’ service-learning project, their research findings and communications recommendations present an opportunity for local nonprofits to reach new “grass-top” collaborators or to strengthen existing partnerships. Their research and recommendations will undoubtedly be assets in the fight against opportunity and achievement gaps in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, and CommunityWorx is extremely grateful to Marshéle Carter and her students for their hard work this semester.

About Howard N. Lee
Howard N. Lee served as mayor of Chapel Hill from 1969 to 1975, making him the first African-American mayor of the town. He was also the first African-American mayor of a predominantly white city in the South. Since retirement from public service, Lee has established several nonprofit organizations in the Chapel Hill area, including the Howard N. Lee Institute, which focuses on providing adequate resources for students and educators. Lee’s work at the Institute has introduced him to countless at-risk middle and high school students within the local region, making him an advocate for closing achievement and opportunity gaps in the school system.

About CommunityWorx
For nearly 70 years, the PTA Thrift Shop has been a nonprofit fixture in the heart of Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Focused on enriching the lives of youth, our goal has always been to build a collaborative community that’s a catalyst for equity, innovation and empowerment. We’re excited for this new season and invite you to join us in showing just how well community works when we’re all working together! For more information about CommunityWorx, visit