Two Sides to Every Story: Exploring Community Partners’ Perspective of their Service Learning Experiences

Stephanie Smith Budhai
Neumann University, USA


Service learning courses have been viewed as beneficial for both college students and community partners. However, there is a dearth in the literature that specifically focuses on outcomes of service learning for and from the perspective of community partners. Through in-depth interviews with representatives of community-based organizations, this qualitative study explores community partners’ perspectives of their service learning experiences. Findings of this study indicate that service learning: 1) is beneficial to community-based organizations; 2) has inherent but amenable challenges; and 3) strengthens their partnerships with the universities. This study provides a space for the voice of community partners into ongoing debates about the import and impact of service learning on community-based organizations.


From planting community gardens to serving food, service learning projects are designed to foster community development between universities and community organizations (Arlach, Sanchez, & Feuer, 2009). However, too often, outsiders are defining the needs of the community. As Ward and Wolf- Wendel (2000) stated, there is a “lack of attention to the community perspective” (p. 769). Often this results in myopic approaches to complicated sociopolitical problems, which does not get at the core issues.

According to Arlach, Sanchez, and Feuer (2009), “the ‘recipients of service’ are likely to provide the most honest assessment of the success of service learning” (p. 5.), however, compared to the research on students’ service learning experiences, few studies have looked at how community-based organizations are impacted by service learning projects. A growing body of research documents the various ways that students benefits from experiential learning. Regrettably, the same diversity of studies focused on community partners, from their perspective, does not exist.

Service learning has proved to have innumerable positive outcomes for students including: an increased desire to be civically engaged (Einfeld & Collins, 2008; Jacobson, 2011; Ostrander, 2004; Reising, Allen, & Hall, 2006); a positive impact on student development (Simons & Cleary, 2006; Yan & Rodgers, 2006); an influence on leadership development of students (Couse & Russo, 2006; Davis, 2007; Dawson & Freed, 2008; Moloney, Dion, Hickey, & Siccama, 2004; Pedras, Olson, & Flottemesch, 2001); and a stronger level of multicultural competence (Borden, 2007). There is not the same level of self-reported research available from the voice of community partners.


The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore the experiences of community partners who engage in service learning from their own perspectives. Understanding how community partners experience service learning can help those involved with implementing service learning to create mutually beneficial projects. This ongoing research project takes this social problem as its point of departure. This study attempted to examine the impact of service learning on community partners, from the community partners’ perspective. One overarching research question guided this study: How do community partners perceive their service learning experience?

Review of the Literature

There is a lack of studies focused on outcomes for community partners who engage in service learning (Ferrari & Worrall, 2000; Schmidt & Robby, 2002). Moreover, there is a shortage of empirical research that uses rigorous research methods to evaluate community outcomes (Simons & Cleary, 2006). As Tryon and Stoecker (2009) found, research on community partners’ satisfaction with service learning has been explored only on the surface.

Some research has sought the perspectives of community-based organizations only to determine the outcomes for college students. For example, Ferrari and Worrall (2000) conducted a study on how community-based organizations perceive service learning. However, the questions asked were solely on the outcomes for the students involved. When outcomes of service learning for community-based organizations have been focused on, the findings have been centered on secondary beneficiaries of service learning, such as teachers and tutored students (Schmidt, Marks, & Derrico, 2004). More specifically, how community partners perceived their service learning experiences has not been widely explored.

Much of the available research on the community side of service learning has focused on university-community partnerships. Bushouse (2005) explored the relationship between community non-profit organizations and a university. Findings of this study showed that some community non-profit organizations desired to have cost-benefit transactional relationships with universities versus the transformational relationships that are often desired by universities in the literature. On the other hand, Sandy and Holland (2006) found that community partners would like to transform relationships with the university through service learning. Worrall (2007) found that while some community organizations enter service learning partnerships in a transactional manner, the desire for more transformational relationships might emerge over time.

Conceptual Framework

Gelmon’s (2003) framework for assessment of community partnerships at the community level served as the conceptual framework for informing this study. Gelmon’s framework is concerned with two themes: community-based organizations and university-community partnerships. Within the two major themes of the framework, seven constructs are identified, including: 1) capacity to fulfill the organizational mission, 2) economic benefits, 3) social benefits, 4) nature of community-university partnership, 5) nature of community-university interaction, 6) satisfaction of partnership, and 7) sustainability of partnership. The former three constructs are within the community based organizations theme, while the latter four constructs are within the university-community partnerships theme.

The assessment framework for impact of service learning on community partners (Gelmon, 2003) integrates seamlessly with the research question guiding this study. The framework helped shape the primary research question, and helped the study to focus on how community partners experience service learning from their own perspective. Additionally, the framework provides a lens to investigate the nature and impact of service learning on universitycommunity partners.

Method of Inquiry

To conduct this study, a qualitative research design was employed. Purposeful sampling was used to identify the participants for this study. Each participant was an active community organization that had been partnering with the large private university during the semester when the study took place. 12 of

the 14 community organizations were located within the city limits of a major metropolitan area, while two of the 14 community organizations were located within the immediate suburbs of the area. Each of the 14 community organizations had relationships with other universities and their students; however, for the study at hand their responses were based on their interactions and experiences with this specific large, private, urban university.

Interviewing is one of the most common and powerful ways in which we try to understand our fellow humans (Fontana & Frey, 2005). The researcher conducted in-depth interviews with 14 representatives from community-based organizations. The interviews took place at the convenience of the community partner on site at the community-based organization. The types of communitybased organizations included three education agencies, two homeless shelters, three urban development/green initiatives agencies, three community resource centers, and three hunger relief agencies/food banks.

The dearth of literature on the community’s perspective of service learning served as a catalyst for using interviews as opposed to a survey instruments as the primary method of data collection. In-depth interviews allowed for the exploration and examination of key issues, costs, and benefits that community partners experience when engaged in service learning projects with the neighboring university. Using the Gelmon (2003) framework as a guide, the interview questions focused on how the community-based organizations felt they were impacted by service learning and their view on their relationship and partnership with the university.


The findings of this study surround three emergent themes: 1) Service Learning Benefits to Community-based Organization, 2) Challenges to the Service Learning Relationship, and 3) Strength of University-Community Partnership. Each of those three themes is explored below.

Service Learning Benefits to Community-based Organization

The community partners interviewed for this study acknowledged several benefits that resulted from their experience working with students in service learning. Findings demonstrated that students’ service work goes beyond helping to advance the mission of the organization. The students have had a direct impact on community members. This includes serving as mentors, providing direct services, and spending time with community members. One community partner stated: “Some students come to school just to hear someone say hello to them. So for them to have just an hour or an hour and a half with someone who cares about them, is huge” (Education agency). Another community partner noted that “The world can’t be that sucky if there is going to be these kids who are willing to do that and they serve as real role models” (Food Services/Medical Nutrition Support).

Given the limited number of full-time staff members and fiscal resources of an organization, the students provided much needed labor and physical support to organizations. While this work does not provide the students with an opportunity to work directly with community members, the impact they have on the community is tremendous. A community partner reflected on the labor the students provide to their organization by saying:

Our work is really labor intensive when we are sorting and boxing food. We just need a lot of people there doing that work and the community food center need volunteers there to help them and make things run smoothly. The labor of volunteers is really critical to us as an organization (Food Bank).

Participating in service learning with the local university has provided benefits to the community-based organizations that community partners represent. In addition to having an impact on community members, the service learning students took a role in advancing the mission of the community-based organization through the labor they have provided.

Challenges to the Service Learning Relationship

There are obstacles to the community organization’s efficiency and ability to work with service learning students. Many of the community partners are concerned with the last-minute rush to complete service work. Community partners feel that students should be genuinely interested in working with the populations they will be serving, and thus, should make their service experience more of a priority. There is also concern with the odd ending times of the school calendar and lack of service learning students during final exam time.

All of the [service learning] students were contacting me individually and I would get 15 calls a day with students saying [I need to do my service today or tomorrow], and I would do my best to try to place them but that’s not how it works (Homeless Shelter). The intrinsic motivation of students was also a point of concern for community partners. One community partner mentioned that, “If you’ve waited this far in the game, what’s your motivation really? Just your grade or do you really want to make an impact?” (Education agency).

Another community partner recognized the need to work with the sporadic schedules of students, but at the same time explained how the inconsistencies impact the organization’s ability to carry out their mission. We want to be as flexible as possible but recognize that they have midterms and have to do what they have to do, but we had to turn away 50 community members, so what does that mean for our impact (Tax Agency).

Another challenge the community partners illuminated was the induction process for service learning students. Community members would like service learning students to be trained prior to arriving at the service site. Training should be around related issues of the organization, sensitivity training, and emergency protocol. One community member suggested that the university hold trainings for the students and community partners by saying, “If the professors could give them some sort of background in addition to my hour, just to make sure that they are prepared to be respectful and open minded” (Homeless Shelter).

The challenges the community partners candidly mentioned go beyond typical communication issues. Community partners have noted that in addition to scheduling conflicts, the students are not prepared to participate in service work. A call for more training of students, as well as a question of their motivation to serve is something practitioners need to consider as they move forward with planning service learning projects.

Strength of University-Community Partnership

Community Partners see themselves as co-educators with the university. They feel that when students come to complete service experiences at their sites, it provides an opportunity for them to expand students’ knowledge, awareness, and understanding of societal issues.

We also look at it as that’s our way of doing, or that’s one of the ways to do some kind of public education and advocacy. So we look at working with [service learning] students as these are people who are learning about the city and probably at a time in their lives when they are learning about a lot of social issues and we want them to understand the reality of hunger in our region and we want them to grow into when they graduate and become professionals and are in the area we want them to be people who are cognizant of the issues of hunger in the region and what can be done about it (Hunger Relief Agency).

Partnering with the university for service learning has also provided the community organizations with the opportunity to be more visible in the larger community. The name recognition of the university brings a positive light to the work of the community-based organization. One community partner said “it [the service learning experience] satisfied our need, and they are actually learning more. It’s helping in a way that gives them a little more visibility and lets us say we are connected to college-level students” (Education agency).


In order to promote active citizenry in students, colleges must work with community partners to ensure reciprocity in the shared experience. The findings of this study provided critical information on service learning benefits, challenges, and outcomes for community partners from their perspective. Although there are a handful of studies that evaluate service learning from the community partners’ perspective (Arlach, Sanchez, & Feuer, 2009; Bushouse, 2005; Schmidt, Marks, & Derrico, 2004;), supplemental studies are needed to add the voice of the communities in concert with the experiences of students. This study helps to establish the perspective of community partners involved in service learning. If the experiences of community partners can be understood, those involved in planning service learning can create projects that are mutually beneficial for all parties.

Given the prodigious missions and limited time and resources of many of these community organizations, community partners do not have time to orient students to the organization in a comprehensive manner. While many students are generally skilled academically and competent enough to carry out the tasks at the site, they do not have the social services background knowledge, nor the cultural competence needed to work with the community members at these sites. The community partners who participated in this study saw a need for instructors to provide students with more information about concepts prior to their arrival to the sites. This would not only lessen the induction process for the community organizations, but it would also provide students with a foundation and understanding to help them carry out the community organization’s mission.

Implications for Practice

The findings of this study have brought forth several practical recommendations that can inform the work of service learning practitioners. First, when planning service learning projects for students, provide a voice to community partners so they have direct input in the types of projects and objectives that will be carried out. Including community partners in the initial phase will strengthen the partnership as well as help ameliorate some of the issues that may arise during the service learning project. Second, partner with community partners and course instructors on providing meaningful and relevant training to students prior to the start of the service learning experience. This will not only help lessen the encumbrance of the community partner to prepare students for their service work, but it will provide students with a foundation to comfortably experience the service learning project. Finally, each service learning experience should be coupled with both reflection and assessment to ensure that best practices are used. Service learning practitioners may also utilize these studies as they re-conceptualize university-community partnerships as well as evaluate the power dynamics in these relationships within the context of service learning projects. Understanding the shared experiences of service learning requires looking at both involved parties.

Recommendations for Future Research

Future research studies should include how to assess the experiences of both community partners and students to ensure reciprocity and a mutually beneficial experience for all parties. A multi-institutional study would also be helpful in understanding how students at different institutions and the same community organizations interpret their service learning experiences.


Even though we have gleaned much from studies on the experiences of students who participate in service learning, service learning projects cannot be improved for students if the experience of community partners is not seriously considered. The findings of this study demonstrated how the relationship with community partners can influence, among other factors, the service learning experience for students. As partners in service learning, discontent on the community partners’ part influences the quality and caliber of the students’ experiences. Additionally, including community partners in future studies can help scholars understand their experiences in service leaning, giving them a platform to speak to their own experiences.

Many colleges and universities have a goal of getting their students actively engaged and empowered by fulfilling their civic duties through experiential learning (Ostrander, 2004). These types of acts, known as Civic Engagement, have long been goals of the educational institutions and the larger society (Dewey 1915; 1938). There is a national public call from our governmental leaders who support service learning in higher education (Service United, 2009). To be truly civically engaged with the community, their voice and experiences must be considered. Butin (2006) said, “The strength of the service learning movement lies in the transformational potential of a pedagogical strategy that changes ourselves, our students, and our communities” (p. 1). Researchers and practitioners alike must continue to evaluate, expand, and require service learning opportunities that will have a lasting impact on students, the larger campus community, and society.


Arlach, L., Sanchez, B., Feuer, R. (2009). Voices from the community: A case for reciprocity in service-learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service-Learning, 2, 5-16.

Borden, A. (2007). The impact of service-learning on ethnocentrism in an intercultural communication course. The Journal of Experiential Education, 30(2), 171-183.

Bushouse, B. (2005). Community nonprofit organizations and service-learning: Resource constraints to building partnerships with universities. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 12(1), 32-40.

Butin, D. (2006). Future directions for service learning in higher education. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 18 (1), 1-4.

Couse, L., & Russo, H. (2006). Service‐learning: mentoring leadership skills in the experienced teacher. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 14(1), 33-48.

Davis, D. (2007). Training transformative leaders through critical servicelearning. Techniques: Connecting Education & Careers, 82(7), 12-13.

Dawson, S., Freed, P. E. (2008). Nurse leadership: Making the most of community service. The Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing, 39(6), 268-273.

Dewey, J. (1915). The school and society. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Dewye, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York, NY: The Macmillian Company.

Einfeld, A., & Collins, D. (2008). The relationship between service-learning, social justice, multicultural competence, and civic engagement. Journal of College Student Development, 49 (2), 95-109.

Ferrari, J. R., & Worrall, L. (2000). Assessments by community agencies: How “the other side” sees service-learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, (7) 35-40.

Fontana, A., & Frey, J. H. (2005). The interview: From neutral stance to political involvment. N. K. Denzin, & Y. S. Lincoln (editors), The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research (3rd ed.,). Thousand Oak: Sage Publications.

Gelmon, S. B. (2003). Assessing service-learning partnerships. In B. Jacoby and Associates (Ed.), Building partnerships for service-learning (pp.42-64). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Jacobson, J., Oravecz, L., Falk, A., and Osteen, P. (2011). Proximate outcomes of service-learning among family studies undergraduates. Family Science Review, 16 (1), 22-33.

Moloney, J., Dion, S., Hickey, C., & Siccama, C. (2004). Transforming graduate students into leaders through service learning. Academic Leader, 20(11), 4-5.

Ostrander, S. A. (2004). Democracy, civic participation, and the university: A comparative study of civic engagement on five campuses. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 33, 74- 95.

Pedras, M., & Olson, J., & Flottemesch, K. (2001). Educational leadership through service-learning. Northwest Passage: Journal of Educational Practices, 1 (1) 24-28.

Reising, D., Allen, P., & Hall, S. (2006). Student and community outcomes in service-learning: Part 1–student perceptions. Journal of Nursing Education, 45(12), 512-515.

Sandy, M., & Holland, B. A. (2006). Different worlds and common ground: Community partner perspectives on campus-community partnerships. Michigan Journal of Community Service learning, 13 (1), 30-43.

Schmidt, M. E., Marks, J. L., & Derrico, L. (2004). What a difference mentoring makes: Service-learning and engagement for college students. Mentoring and Tutoring, 12 (1), 205-217.

Schmidt, A., & Robby, M. (2002). What’s the value of service-learning to the community? Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 9 (1), 27-33.

Service-learning United. “Serve America, S. 277- Service-Learning Highlights.” March 23, 2009. National Service-Learning Partnership.

Simons, L., & Cleary, B. (2006). The influence of service learning on students’ personal and social development. College Teaching, 54(4), 307-319.

Tryon, E. & Stoecker, R. (2009). The unheard voices: Community organizations and service learning. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Ward, K., & Wolf-Wendel, L. (2000). Community-centered service-learning: Moving from doing for to doing with. American Behavioral Scientist, 43(5), 767-780.

Worrall, L. (2007). Asking the community: A case study of community partner perspectives. Michigan Journal of Community Service-Learning, 14 (1), 5-17.

Yan, W., & Rodgers, R. (2006). Impact of service-learning and social justice education on college students’ cognitive development. NASPA Journal, 43(2), 316-337.

About the author:

Stephanie Smith Budhai

Stephanie Smith Budhai, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Division of

Education and Human Services at Neumann University. Stephanie has been

studying service-learning since her undergraduate years. She has interests in

special education, pre-service teacher development, and online learning.

Assistant Professor, Division of Education and Human Services, Neumann University, 332J-BMB, Aston, PA, 19014.

© 2013 Journal for Civic Commitment

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.