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Capacity building through service learning.


This paper explores how two university-based service learning programs enhance capacity building in the community. Analyzing the service learning programs in two universities, respectively at the University of Central Florida and Eastern Michigan University, this paper explores the differences and similarities between the two universities with respect to the practical approaches to service learning pedagogy and community civic engagement. The paper uses the concepts of social capital and capacity building to understand the partnership between these universities and community organizations.

"A different world cannot be built by indifferent people. "--Horace Mann


As society relies more and more on nonprofit organizations to provide critical services and advocate for public policy, leaders in the nonprofit sectors are concerned about enhancing organizational effectiveness. Many believe that investment in organizational capacity is the main avenue to improve organizational effectiveness. As part of their strategies to enhance their capacity, organizations collaborate with one another as well as with universities. Service learning is a program that seeks to promote student learning through experience associated with service in the community (Chaskin 2001 ; Coleman 1990; Gray 1989; Hanifan 1916). Service learning also gives the community the opportunity to address its needs through the service learning courses. This paper explores the history and characteristics of service learning at two universities, University of Central Florida (UCF) and Eastern Michigan University (EMU), and presents service learning as one way for the community and institutions of higher education to engage in capacity building. This paper is a critical reflection on field experience not a systematic scientific inquiry. Conversations with faculty and service learning coordinators provided information to the paper.

Capacity building: definitions

Capacity building is presently a major topic among nonprofits and management support organizations (funders, associations, training centers, consultants, etc.) that provide services to nonprofits. The concept of capacity building in nonprofits is similar to the concept of organizational development, organizational effectiveness and/or organizational performance management in for-profits. In Investing in Capacity Building Barbara Blumenthal defines capacity building as "actions that improve nonprofit effectiveness." In a research funded by the California Wellness Foundation, capacity building was defined by practitioners as:
 ... The development of an organization's core skills and
 capabilities, such as leadership, management, finance and
 fundraising, programs and evaluation, in order to build the
 organization's effectiveness and sustainability. Capacity
 building is facilitated through the provision of technical support
 activities, including coaching, training, specific technical
 assistance and resource networking (Campobasso and Davis 2001: 4).

According to research conducted by Millesen and Bies (2004), capacity building is best understood by looking at the interplay of four theories, strategic management, agent theory, resource dependence, and institutional, that are useful in "understanding, explaining and predicting why a nonprofit organization might engage in capacity building" (Millesen and Bies 2004:3).

These different approaches to defining capacity building show that there is no one single formula for building the capacity of community organizations and of the communities they serve. However, there is a general agreement that capacity building is based on the notion that in a rapidly changing environment, change is a norm and not an anomaly (Hansberry 2002; De Vita et al. 2001; Kretzman and McKnight 1993). According to Loza (2004), the variety of meanings of capacity building led to the identification of capacity building areas, which are: human resource development (leadership and skills and knowledge development), research and advocacy, information access, use and dissemination of information, organizational development (networking, building alliances and coalitions) and financial sustainability.

Service--learning: definition and characteristics

Civic commitment has been a major emphasis of education around the world since ancient times. In the United States, public education was founded on the notion that people need to be trained in basic skills in order to serve their communities as effective citizens and leaders. The more recent roots of service-learning in the United States can be traced to the 1960s, when political activism among students was a major cultural influence. In that time, students began to demand a connection between their civic commitments and their educational experiences. Since then, the movement has grown steadily. It surged in the late 1980s with the formation of the Campus Compact, a nationwide organization of university presidents who pledge to emphasize service on their campuses (Zieren and Stoddard 2004). Today, over 860 institutions of higher education are part of the growing Compact, and on average, 28 percent of the students at those institutions participate in service-learning (Kaye 2004; Ostrander 2003; Bernstein et al. 2003; Hammer 2003; Payne 2000; Zlotkowski 1999; Driscoll and Holland 1996; Jacoby 1996, 2003; Marcus 1993).

Service-learning is a method of teaching by which people learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences that: meet community needs; are coordinated in collaboration with college and community; are integrated into each person's academic curriculum; provide structured time for a person to think, talk, and write about what he/she did and saw during the actual service activity; provide people with opportunities to use newly acquired academic skills and knowledge in real life situations in their own communities; enhance what is taught in the classroom by extending student learning beyond the classroom; and help to foster the development of a sense of caring about others (adapted from The Alliance for Service-Learning in Education Reform 1993). Service learning emphasizes problem-solving and critical thinking. Service-learning places "curricular concepts in the context of real-life situations" and "empowers students to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize these concepts through practical problem-solving" (Alliance 1993: 71). Students inevitably encounter issues that must be addressed or obstacles that must be surmounted in order to complete their service-learning projects which generally occur over a single semester, but multi-semester projects can occur as well (Bringle and Hatcher 1996).

Kenworth-U'ren and Peterson (2005) use the "WE CARE" concept to define service learning and its components. WE CARE represents: Welcomed, evidence-based, complementary, action-oriented, reciprocal, and epistemic. Successful service-learning courses are welcomed by the faculty member(s) teaching the course and coordinating the service-learning project activities in the community. Service-learning projects should be evidence-based; service-learning projects are complementary tools for experiential education. Service-learning projects are action oriented applications that can be translated into service in the community, and are reciprocal; everybody involved in the service learning activities learns.

Service learning at University of Central Florida

The University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando is a metropolitan research university that has grown from 17,000 students fifteen years ago to 45,000 students today. In 2001, a small group of faculty determined that UCF should become an active participant in service-learning. To that end, the group designed an educational program for faculty, an outreach program for civic partners, and the foundation for the institutionalization of service-learning at this large urban state institution. In 2002, the Service-Learning Committee received a grant from the Florida Campus Compact to expand service-learning activities at UCF. Two workshops were presented and the grant supported presentations at the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning (FCTL), including a service-learning track in the Summer Faculty Development Conference. In addition, some faculty members with service-learning experiences offered consultation to faculty developing service-learning courses. Three strategies emerged from this initiative, largely through workshops:

1. Educate the faculty: via disciplinary workshops, student testimonials, civic group presentations, and faculty development conferences.

2. Identify and involve civic partners: a variety of experiences were organized: a. civic partners' advisory board, b. civic partners' presentations, c. civic partner day, d. civic partner database to achieve this aim. A community partners service-learning advisory board was assembled in January 2003 to connect service-learning at UCF to the community.

3. Establish an institutional structure through activities such as: discover and publicize existing service-learning courses; demonstrate value to the institution; establish a coordinating committee; reach consensus on terms and criteria; educate administrators; and seek university-level funding.

The Service-Learning Coordinating Committee meets monthly. They have defined service-learning at UCF; discussed service-learning theories, models, and practices; planned events; proposed ways to promote service-learning on the UCF campus; and established the criteria and procedure to be used in approving service-learning courses. Currently, 83 courses are approved as service learning courses at UCF by the course approval committee (UCF Service Learning Office 2005). The Service-Learning Course Approval process was instituted because the new provost allocated additional funding for service-learning courses in January 2004. The Service-Learning Coordinating Committee created criteria for service-learning courses and a procedure for approval of service-learning courses. In March, 2004, the Service-Learning Course Approval Committee (Eight faculty members and a Service-Learning Coordinator) approved fifty-five courses for the service-learning designation. Of these 55 courses, 45 were for the fall 2004 semester.

Service--Learning at Eastern Michigan University

Eastern Michigan University (EMU) was established in 1849 as a teachers' institution. Today, with a total of over 24,000 students, its mission of providing an excellent teaching and learning environment has expanded by incorporating new institutional values. Among them, public engagement led to several changes in the way the University relates and works with the community, one of them being the creation of the Office of Academic Service-Learning. To emphasize the importance shown to the academic structure of service learning, the term academic service-learning was institutionalized. The mission of the Office of Academic Service-Learning is to build an infrastructure that will support students, faculty, administrators, and community members in their efforts to implement academic service-learning. The Office provides several services to its constituents:

1. Faculty Fellow Seminars are offered each fall and winter. Six selected faculty are released quarter-time to participate in a semester-long weekly seminar. Fellows learn academic service-learning theory, implementation and assessment.

2. Workshops and Seminars to provide faculty with strategies to help implement academic service-learning in courses and to conduct community-based action research.

3. Assistance to faculty in identifying community partners, respectively to contact and partner with agencies and community sites. A database with profiles of available sites is maintained by the office.

4. Resource center which offers assistance to faculty regarding research opportunities, current research, publishing opportunities, and conference presentations and grant opportunities.

5. Provide networking opportunities. Faculty have the opportunity to meet one on one and discuss important decisions about courses, find valuable information, share ideas and keep up to date on any news events. Through this interaction, faculty form partnerships and supportive networks and engage in collaborative scholarship.

Academic service-learning outcomes

A. Participation: Since its start in 1994, through the Office of Academic Service-Learning more than 100 faculty members (approximately 15% of all EMU's faculty) were trained in and incorporated service-learning in their courses. These courses cover approximately 39 discipline areas.

B. Community partnerships: The Office of Academic Service-Learning conservatively estimates that at any given time a minimum of 55 faculty members are offering a course using academic service-learning. It also provided training and technical assistance in academic service-learning to sixteen school districts throughout the state of Michigan and partnered on grants with two school districts.

C. Learning experience for students: Within an academic service-learning experience, the student's role is essential. Depending upon the course and the community agency, the student's role can range from direct service to clients such as tutoring, mentoring, assessing needs, providing companionship or supervision, to service to the agency such as a marketing plan, participatory action research, public relations materials, curriculum development, and accounting.

D. Grants: The Office of Academic Service-Learning has a nationally recognized Academic Service-Learning Faculty Development Model. The Office has secured over two million dollars in grant funds from such funding agencies as the Corporation for National and Community Service and FIPSE (Funds for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education) to advance the teaching pedagogy of academic service-learning at the state and national level. Through grant funds the Office has disseminated its model to the four regional teacher preparation programs within the State of Michigan and to six universities throughout the nation. The Office has been very active advancing academic service-learning at the K-12 level. The Office received a grant to provide training and technical assistance in academic service-learning to sixteen school districts throughout the state of Michigan. The Office also partnered on grants with Romulus school district and Ypsilanti school district to train math and science teachers in academic service-learning.

Service learning: a social capital perspective

Although in two different parts of the country, both universities emphasize the importance of service learning, but practice it in different ways. Compared to UCF, at EMU the preparation of faculty is done in a more structured way, faculty being practically enrolled into an academic service-learning class where manuals, case studies and home work is being used. If we were to use a life cycle model, we could say that service learning at UCF is in the "growing" stage, while the academic service learning at EMU is at the peak of the cycle and has reached the "maturity" stage. At UCF, service learning is a relatively new endeavor and faculty are introduced and trained into service learning through seminars, workshops and conferences. In comparison, at EMU academic service learning has been "practiced" for over a decade and the service learning model developed has been disseminated state- and nationwide. Faculty involvement in the delivery of service learning is also different: at EMU, faculty engages in a structured, one semester long training session for which they are also given course load release. EMU has already established connections with the community while UCF is at the stage of building connections.

Having the same root, the Community Campus Compact, both service learning programs have the same objectives: utilize community service as a way to acquire new knowledge, engage in civic activity, and strengthen the community's capacity; they "civically engage students in community based work by addressing and helping to solve real life community issues through service" (Vernon and Foster 2002: 155). Through service learning, both universities are building and sustaining a strong civil society. A strong civil society creates social capital, since "the two dimensions of social capital are direct helping or service and social program solving" (Eyler and Giles, 1999:153). This argument is strengthened by Fukuyama and Porter & Sensenbrenner's definitions of social capital. Fukuyama argues that social capital is "the ability of people to work together for common purposes in groups and organizations" (1995:10). Porter and Sensenbrenner define social capital as "those expectations of action within a collectivity that affect the economic goals and goal seeking behavior of its members, even if these expectations are not oriented toward the economic sphere" (1993:1323). Table 1 illustrates how each university's structure of service learning program contributes to community organization capacity building, and overall, to building and strengthening social capital. See Table 1 makes it evident that both universities developed (EMU) and are developing (UCF) social network formed by faculty, students, university administration and the large community, which, according to Nahapiet and Ghoshal (1998), is the very definition of social capital: "a kind of relationship with resource embedded in human, group or social network."

A major difference between the two universities is how the two institutionalized relations with the community and the "route" to capacity building. UCF has a Civic partner advisory board in addition to the service learning office with staff while EMU has created an Office of Academic Service-Learning with a director (a new unit within the university). These both suggest the universities deep interest and involvement in capacity building, but also illustrate that there are different ways to contribute to capacity building. It might be expected that as UCF develops its service learning program, and therefore this program becomes more mature, UCF will too create an independent unit to administer and run all service learning initiatives that take place on campus.

The development of joint projects, such as the Civic partner advisory board at UCF and the collaborating grant writing at EMU, denotes the existence of a trust among the universities and community. This trust, according to Putnam, is another face of social capital, which allows for the effective pursuit of mutual goals (Putnam 1995). The trust building process is illustrated by the attention given by both UCF and EMU to developing relationships with the community. The quest for effective means is exemplified by all the activities organized to educate the faculty, the students and to involve the community in service learning projects. There is also evidence of networks' creation and extent. There are 83 service learning courses at UCF, and 100 faculty members coveting 39 discipline areas at EMU. At each university there is a center that sustains the network: the Civic partner advisory board at UCF and the institutionalized Office of Academic Service-Learning at EMU.


In this paper we have looked, succinctly, at how two universities, UCF and EMU, implement academic service-learning and the importance of service learning for the community's capacity building. What is actually done through service learning is the promotion and sustenance of the common good, respectively, civic engagement. Civic engagement, in turn, builds social capital (Vernon and Foster 2002: 155). Although using different means to develop and promote service learning, both universities have the same goal in mind and they work hard towards developing good relationships with the community and in having students involved in the community for the creation of greater good. The service learning project faculty and students engage in the community's life. Service learning projects help to foster the development of a sense of caring about others, positively impact civic participation, and sustain social capital. The students benefit from the advantages of the social support of others in the community. This is an example of the internal and external aspects of social capital. The internal aspect of social capital is that an individual forms relationships with others, and through these relationships, some type of need within that individual is fulfilled. The external aspects of social capital include the impacts on the entire community as a result of these newly formed relationships. Both UCF's and EMU's service learning programs utilize community service as a way to strengthen the community's capacity--building the effectiveness and sustainability of the community and community organizations by engaging students in community based work to address community issues. Thus, student learning is promoted through experience associated with service in the community and the community is given the opportunity to address its needs through academic service learning. Overall, everybody involved in the service-learning learns; social capital is developed, and community capacity is built.


The following individuals provided information and insights to the paper: Linda S. Hargreaves, Program Coordinator, Undergraduate Studies, University of Central Florida; Melody Bowdon, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Maria-Elena Augustin, Graduate Student Researcher, Department of Public Administration, University of Central Florida; Dr. Diane Wink, Professor, School of Nursing, Senior Faculty Fellow, Office of Academic Affairs; Dr. Kathy Stacey, Director of the Office of Academic Service-Learning, Eastern Michigan University. We do gratefully acknowledge their assistance.


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Naim Kapucu, University of Central Florida

Claudia Petrescu, Eastern Michigan University

Naim Kapucu, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration. His research interests are nonprofit capacity building, crisis management, decision-making in complex environment, and organizational learning and design. Claudia Petrescu, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science. Her research interests are nonprofit management, strategic planning, and best practices.
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Author:Petrescu, Claudia
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Date:Mar 22, 2006
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