The Academic Institution and The Nonprofit

The Academic Institution and The Nonprofit: The Added Value of the Connection for the Agency, the Volunteer Leaders and the Professionals

Nonprofit organizations and academic institutions often exist on parallel tracks in a community and the opportunities for collaboration, cooperation and coordination are often overlooked. The connection between these two entities that are so important to building and strengthening a community is a challenge that should be undertaken by both sides. The benefits are numerous and I would like to discuss the added value for the nonprofit in developing stronger ties between the world of “knowledge” and the world of “practice”.

In addition to making a valuable contribution to the community, the nonprofit organization is uniquely positioned to collaborate with a university in a variety of ways. One of the most familiar forms of connecting is through providing placements for academic programs. Universities look for appropriate “field placements” or “internships” and we are most familiar with academic programs in education and social work, among others.

During most university degree granting programs in schools of education and schools of social work the students are required to practice what they are learning in the classroom and in the agency. These placements are an integral part of the educational program and the students receive credit for their beginning assignments as a student teacher or a social work intern. However, there are number of benefits to having students present in community institutions like schools and community centers.

When an organization agrees to accept a student and to develop an appropriate assignment with the university or college both sides benefit from the student’s presence in the school or agency. It is clear to all of us that there is often a disparity between the world of conceptual thinking and the world of practice. It can be challenging to implement the conceptual learning of an institution of higher learning in actual practice. The reasons can range from limited resources to resistance to experimenting with new ways of doing something in the field.

Having a student begin their professional practice in a functioning nonprofit is beneficial to the university and the agency, as well as the student. The university provides a comprehensive educational experience to the student in exposing them to the world of practice. The student completes their degree through their field placement experience. This enables the student to test out what they have learning in the classes and to see how you implement what you understand conceptually. In the behavioral sciences in particular this is very important.

Just because someone learns about educational theory does not mean they have pedagogical skills, and the placement in a school under the supervision of a professional, experienced and skillful teacher can enhance the student’s development. The same is true for educational programs in many other professional fields including social work, psychology, community work, and a variety of other professions. Of course there is a cost to the commitment to provide a placement to the student for the practice component of an educational experience.

When a nonprofit organization agrees to develop and provide a field placement for a student there is a mistaken impression that this is “cheap labor” for the agency. Nothing could be further from the reality. Yes, there is a benefit to the nonprofit, however, this is also a cost. The price of having a student is born by the agency in terms of the staff that is assigned to develop the student’s placement and in providing supervision on an on-going basis.

The benefit of agreeing to accept a student is not what the student brings to the agency in terms of implementing the services of the organization. The added value of a student is in the way the student shares the learning process with the staff of the organization. Students ask questions. Asking questions is at the core of the educational process and students should be encouraged to ask questions and to raise issues with the professional staff.

So, how is asking questions a benefit to the nonprofit? Organizations have a tendency to function in a routine manner and students who ask questions will an asset to the agency. Questions may focus on:

  • Why do you/don’t you provide service “X”?
  • Have you ever thought of doing “Y”?
  • Are the clients really receiving the service you intended them to receive?
  • Is this the best environment to enhance the student’s learning?

These are just a few of the questions students ask that can be a catalyst for thinking differently about what an agency does and how it does it.

The role of a student is not the only connection that can be developed between universities and nonprofits. In the day to day work of a practice based organization the staff may or may not be aware that they are in a prime position to develop knowledge about what they do and how they do it. Collaboration between the staff of the organization and the faculty and students of the university can provide opportunities to develop knowledge.

In some situations the agency can be an appropriate site to conduct research projects that seek to understand social issues, practice issues, or to confirm assumptions that are made about the services provided and the way they are implemented. There can be opportunities for either graduate students to implement research projects at the nonprofit and in other instances, for a professor and the agency to apply for a research grant together. In either case, the agency’s contribution to the development of knowledge can only strengthen the organization’s standing in the community. The connection to the academic world also speaks very positively to donors about the broad perspective of the nonprofit has in the dual focus on developing innovative approaches and improving services.

Among the many connections nonprofits can develop with colleges and university is the co-sponsoring of a meeting or a conference that examines one or more social issues. When there has been some form of collaboration between the two institutions that leads to new insights or understandings then there is an opportunity to interest a wider audience in the issues and the response that has had an impact on the community. For example, if a community center has developed an effective informal sex education program for adolescents and has documented their findings then this provides a wonderful opportunity to sponsor a conference focused on education, social service, and health professionals as well as interested volunteer leaders from non-profit organizations.

In thinking about the broader impact a nonprofit can have both on the residents and on other organizations in the community the connection to academic institutions can provide added value beyond meeting the specific needs of two bodies working together. Thinking creatively about the agencies you are involved with as a professional or volunteer can result in initiating a collaborative effort with a college or university focused on student placements, research for knowledge or any other number of joint efforts. It will not only enhance the organization but also strengthen ties to the community.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.