At Harris, Leppek is studying the ways computer science, data analytics, and statistics could benefit the nonprofit sector.
Jacob Leppek, outside Keller
Jacob Leppek

“Nonprofits are chronically underfunded, under-resourced, and understaffed, and yet we rely very heavily on them to solve systemic issues facing people and the planet,” says Jacob Leppek, MS in Computational Analysis and Public Policy (MSCAPP) Class of 2021.

“There are many people in the nonprofit sector who are passionate, intelligent, and motivated, but it is challenging for them to gain the data skills that they need to make an immediate difference. … If nonprofits had wider access to the data-driven skills and resources used in the private sector, they could accomplish a lot more.”

Leppek has worked and volunteered with several nonprofits since he began his undergraduate career at Michigan State University (MSU), where he majored in International Affairs, Economics, and Arabic.

At MSU, Leppek worked in the Center for Economic Development, meanwhile serving as Community Service Chair for Michigan Beta Phi Delta Theta, where he oversaw fundraising campaigns. He also volunteered with Students Wanting to Achieve Greatness.

Post-graduation, Leppek volunteered with Catalyst for Achievement and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America before securing an AmeriCorps VISTA position with the Michigan Community Service Commission (MCSC). There, he worked to improve the safety of mentoring programs. After serving with AmeriCorps, he secured a position through MCSC as a consultant for data and compliance. “Working with data in this capacity made me realize I had a knowledge gap, which motivated me to come to Harris.”

Leppek’s ultimate goal in his studies at Harris is to develop sustainable training methods that will fundamentally change the way nonprofits operate. Short term, he plans to start a nonprofit consulting firm that focuses on training nonprofit employees in data science skills such as survey methods, program evaluation, and coding to equip them with the data they need to solve complex problems.

“I hope to figure out how to give nonprofits resources at a low cost that individuals from all communities can afford. I think it would be amazing if, for example, there was a person who wanted to make a change in their community, and they could easily access the data they need to present to their city council... I’m interested in questions like: What is the role of nonprofits? What drives people to volunteer? How can we give effectively and well?”

The skills Leppek is gaining in the MS in Computational Analysis and Public Policy program puts him much closer to this goal. “Before entering the workforce, I did not understand the significance and power of areas like computer science, data analytics, and statistics in solving public policy issues. Coming to Harris after two years of working, it is exciting to build a toolkit that will immediately benefit my career. The program’s unique blend of computer science and public policy ties all my interests together by allowing me to test hypotheses and gain hard skills while also challenging assumptions and making sure we are not only doing things effectively, but also for the right reasons.”

At Harris, Leppek secured a position as a data analyst with Alumni Relations & Development, conducting analyses on alumni giving, communications, and programs using the R and Python skills he is learning in the MSCAPP program. He is also involved with Harris Community Action, Chicago Policy Review data visualization team, and UC3P podcasting group.

Leppek also has some interesting advice for both applicants and admitted students: “For applicants, perhaps the most helpful advice for my application came from my mom: apply as a person who, in ten years, will be someone who will be asked to come back and give a talk. … Once you’re admitted, take in as many opportunities as you can—get involved in the community and collaborate with others.”