Service-Learning: Building Relationships with Community Organizations

When seeking to work with a community organization, consider the depth of the relationship you seek to establish.  Some service-learning course instructors view the community organization simply as a placement for their students, while others see the organization as a partner.  Simply arranging service placements may create a one-sided experience in which students view their work in the community as a charitable contribution, helping the “less fortunate.”  Forming partnerships is likely to create a reciprocal relationship in which all parties understand and support the others' goals.  But partnerships require more time from both parties—time that either you or the organization may not be in a position to give.

When contacting an organization about working with you and your students, consider all of the factors necessary for a successful service-learning relationship.  While your most pressing concern may be the connection between your course material and the students' work to support the organization, also consider issues such as logistics and supervision.

Consult the following list of considerations when seeking to build a relationship with a community organization:

Connection to course content

  • What will your students do and how will these activities relate to and inform the issues you’ll be exploring in the classroom?
  • Have you communicated clearly to the agency representative what your course is about?
  • Would you be willing and able to invite a community agency representative to share in teaching about the material or to offer their insights to students in a formal way?
  • Have you considered how students’ service experiences might add to or complicate the other things they will be learning in the course?
  • Have you provided adequate room in your syllabus to allow students to reflect on their service experiences and make the connections between those experiences and the other components of the course? 


  • Is the service site accessible? Is it within walking distance? Can it be reached via public transportation, transportation provided through UMass CESL or Five Colleges Inc?  Do students have cars and, if so are they willing to carpool? 
  • Are there any foreseeable risks that students might encounter through working with the organization and about which they should be informed?


  • Does the organization have a clear understanding of your learning objectives for the students, or of their own learning objectives?
  • Is there a designated staff member available to supervise students and provide any training they may need to be effective in their roles?
  • Does the supervisor know the number of students who will be working with the organization?
  • Have you and the supervisor determined expectations for communication between the two of you?
  • Will you talk or email periodically?
  • Can you visit the supervisor at the organization? 
  • Will you ask the supervisor to complete evaluation forms?