A Summer with The Urban Institute


A Summer with The Urban Institute

By: Ashley W. Li


My last day at The Urban Institute is still two weeks away, but I have long been aware that I would really miss my time here at one of the nation’s top research centers. I will be finishing my three-month internship as an Emerging Scholar at the UI’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy (CNP), and now I would like to share my experience first by breaking a few myths you might have had in your mind.

(Note: all myths and facts are listed only for the purpose of providing information in a reader-friendly format. Comments are made just based on personal experience.)




Myth #1: The Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at The Urban Institute is very large.

In the nonprofit sector, we’ve heard about The Urban Institute’s big name through its numerous publications and nation-wide studies. But actually the UI’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy has a much smaller staff size than we expected! The tight team of around ten full-time researchers (excluding part-time researchers, consultants and affiliated scholars) handles dozens of research projects and is responsible for managing the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), a database with Form 990 information for all the nation’s nonprofits. At a good research center, you’ll be impressed by people’s high productivity and ability to learn!


Myth #2: Researchers at The Urban Institute are very senior and might be hard to approach.

Actually researchers at the Urban Institute are all very nice and helpful! They are very willing to answer your questions and share their expertise, and they also respect ideas from lower-level staff members. When you start a new project, you may also consider talking to other UI experts who have done related research. I actually talked to two senior researchers from other centers and even the author of the well-known book Performance Measurement, Harry Hatry, about a project I was working on. It was definitely fun talking to someone whose names I saw on book covers!


Myth #3: The Urban Institute only employs people with a master’s or higher degree.

At each center, there are entry-level positions called Research Assistants, which are normally filled by new graduates from college with a strong quantitative background. An RA could be involved in several projects and work directly with senior researchers. It is good for those who want to gain some work experience right after college. But if you want to serve the UI for a long-term, most employees do make efforts to obtain a Ph.D degree to secure a higher position.



Fact #1: What is the work environment like at The Urban Institute?

I would say the work environment at the Urban Institute is like a huge Ph.D program. I actually spent the first couple of days reading and getting paid! If you want to learn about a new subject, people will always be able to take a book off their shelves and throw it to you. One good thing about the center on nonprofits is that every one or two weeks, we’ll enjoy chocolates with different fillings made by a colleague’s magic husband (and sometimes fresh veggies from their garden!). I feel research work is all about learning and sharing.


Fact #2: Each hour counts!

At the Urban Institute, though researchers have flexible working hours, their time is valuable! Each hour you work should go under the budget of a certain project. So at the end of each day, you’ll have to calculate how many hours you spent on each project and fill it into your timesheet. I find it a really good way to avoid wasting your time. (You should probably consider adapting this rule in your studies to “budget” your time.)


Fact #3: How is research conducted at the Urban Institute Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy?

As we know, the Urban Institute conducts a lot of national studies. Here, I’ll give a few examples on how the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy conducts large research projects. You have probably heard of The Nonprofit Sector in Brief or The Nonprofit Almanac, which are national reports about the entire scope and trends of the U.S. nonprofit sector. In this project, one part of the data are retrieved from center’s National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS). A team will first define the variables they want to use and then type in programming codes to pull out the data from the Form 990s. Of course, which variables to use and what they want to tell the readers requires a lot of discussion before finishing the final book with over 50 graphs and 100 tables. For another national survey project, a sample of organizations to be surveyed will be pulled out from the NCCS database. Later you’ll find yourself analyzing over 2500 valid responses and 1800 answers for one open-ended question! So the process of conducting these large studies is not mysterious, but skills in dealing with large amounts of data and information is definitely a must have!

In all, doing an internship in DC is a lot of fun. There are a lot of networking opportunities that create abundant exposure to the sector. Being able to find a perfect apartment in cozy Old Town Alexandria area added an extra tune of romance to this uncommonly cool DC summer. So plan early for your internship and there might be a way to work out vacation and work at the same time!


Finally, I have a few tips for fellow nonprofit portfolio students:

For those who are getting ready for an internship or a career in the nonprofit sector, I would recommend doing the following based on my own experience:

1.    Attend info sessions (if any) and introduce yourself to the HR person; understand the organization well and be specific.

2.    Join any young nonprofit professional networks and learn from your peers, e.g., YNPN, EPIP and Net Impact. 

3.    Follow news media for the nonprofit sector, e.g. Chronicle of Philanthropy, Nonprofit Quarterly, Nonprofit Times, Stanford Social Innovation Review.

4.    Attend regional and national conferences to learn about organizations and meet people, e.g. Texas Nonprofit Summit, ARNOVA Annual Conference, Council on Foundations Annual Conference, etc.

5.    When doing your internship, ask your supervisors to introduce you to other resources and people to talk to. (I actually talked to senior staff members who served for the National Council of Nonprofits, and Council on Foundations, etc.)

6.    You are strongly encouraged to take a look at the portfolio program’s Nonprofit Resources webpage with links of local resources, professional networks, and job search tools


Contact Ashley at wanting.li@utexas.edu or learn more about her involvement with the RGK Center here

June 1, 2013