Miranda Coffey '11

Hometown: Friendsville, TN
Major: Sociology
Minor: Philosophy
Senior Study Title: “Organizational Development in Non-Profit Settings: A Quasi-Experimental Design with Blount County Habitat for Humanity”
Advisor: Dr. Susan Ambler

Thesis Abstract

Habitat for Humanity, a national nonprofit organization that provides simple, decent and affordable housing in partnership with people in need, has always attracted college students as volunteers.

But Maryville College sociology major Miranda Coffey wanted to do more than volunteer. She wanted to research the teams that gather to build houses and see if, through her Senior Study, they could become more effective.

“I have always been interested in group dynamics and how teams can best work together to achieve their goals,” said Coffey. “In the spring of my junior year, I was brainstorming what organizations would feasibly work with me to do this kind of research. Habitat seemed like a great candidate because so many groups come to Blount County each year to work on homes.

“Researchers love repetition, so doing my study with different groups would help me verify my data and results.”

Coffey had already met Blount County Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Tony Gibbons while working on a class project for SLS301: Social Sciences Research Methods. She had also taken SOC 305: Organizational Behavior, and was really interested in the theoretical material on organizational development and organizational sociology and psychology, which seemed potentially applicable to the group builds at Habitat.


Coffey, in partnership with her advisor, Associate Professor of Sociology Dr. Susan Ambler, decided to focus the study on organizational development.

Ambler said she was more than pleased by Coffey’s ideas.

“I was excited that she was applying her knowledge of sociology to the needs of a community organization that had potential to benefit that organization to be more effective in accomplishing its goals,” the professor explained.

According to Michael Beer, author and corporate culture and organizational development guru,” organizational development “is the system-wide process of data collection, diagnosis, action planning, intervention and evaluation aimed at increasing congruence between organization and structure, process, strategy, people and culture.”

Coffey’s process involved research, working with the Habitat for Humanity volunteers, creating team-building training workshops, and then surveying the volunteers to see whether the workshops had any effect.

“I chose to use the term ‘quasi-experimental’ to indicate that the research I did was not truly experimental, as social scientists differentiate between the two,” she explained. “In a truly experimental study, the researcher exercises as much control over extraneous factors as possible. In this study, I had very little control over extraneous factors, such as timing, group demographics, etc., because I could only work with certain groups at certain times. My groups were not randomly selected, but they were the groups that were available to participate in the training at the times I could offer it.”

Coffey said the most difficult part of her Senior Study was finding relevant research.

“Finding people who were doing what I was doing was very challenging,” she said. “Organizational development was not even around before the 1940s and 50s.”

Ambler said she was stretched, as well, by learning the academic approaches of organizational development.

“I know the research methodology of community-based research, but the theoretical literature that Miranda reviewed was unfamiliar and I learned about a number of theorists, especially in psychology, whom I had not read about previously,” she said.

For Coffey, the most rewarding part of her thesis is the fact that her team-building workshops actually did help the Habitat for Humanity volunteers work together more successfully and happily, as measured by surveys.

“It meant the world to me after investing so much time and energy into it,” said Coffey of the results.

She continues to invest time and energy into the nonprofit.

“I guess [Blount County Habitat] got used to having me around and didn’t want me to go, because before graduation, they offered me a part-time position as a ‘special projects coordinator.’ In that role, I work directly with the affiliate to do fundraising, grant writing, working with the partner families and teaching a class on budgeting. I also work with the Housing Repair Collaborative of Blount County through Habitat, and that organization is aimed at providing affordable housing repair for low-income families in Blount County by streamlining volunteers and resources.

“I absolutely love working at Habitat; I have learned so much about non-profits and solving problems in the community… not to mention I get to keep doing my teambuilding workshop with volunteer groups and partner families!

At the end of the 2010-2011 academic year, Ambler recommended Coffey’s study for the library’s permanent collection for three reasons. First, she said, the collaboration between Coffey and Habitat was outstanding and enabled the MC student to develop and implement a group training program and then measure its effectiveness.

“A second reason I recommended it is because Miranda also creatively developed a typology in her thesis, which is an unusual accomplishment for an undergraduate student. The final reason is because it is very well written.”

Coffey says her career goals are to be a practitioner of organizational development and work to solve or prevent problems among employees in many different organizations. She said she thinks that her Senior Study has given her an advantage over the competition.

The greater achievement of the Senior Study, she said, is of making a difference.

“Hopefully, my work is not about articles and case studies,” she said. “Hopefully it is about helping strangers become friends through the building of trust and respect.”