Delivering Value to Community Partners in Service-Learning Projects

Shannon B. Rinaldo, Donna F. Davis, and Josh Borunda

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Service learning is a pedagogy wherein students engage in providing a service to the community that is linked to the academic objectives of a course. There are multiple stakeholders in the service-learning experience, including students, instructors, and community partners. A significant body of research investigates experiences of students and instructors, exploring the impact of service learning on student learning and describing how to effectively design service-learning courses. While community partners are indispensable stakeholders in service learning, there are only a few studies that examine their experiences and needs. The present study addresses this weakness in our understanding by conducting a qualitative study that examines the value of service learning to community partners. Findings describe the service-learning experience from the viewpoint of community partners and report the dimensions of value created for our community partners.


Service learning engages students in course-related community service and enhances the classroom learning experience by requiring students to participate in activities that integrate course material with volunteer service (Petkus, Jr., 2000). Zlotkowski (1996) distinguished service learning from traditional internships by defining service learning as an experienced-based pedagogy that serves a community need and requires student reflection on the project. The structure and reflective component have been said to offer students “an effective curricular balance” (Post, Kundt, Mehl, Hudson, Stone, & Banks, 2009, p.18) to enhance ethics and values of a given area of study. Student tasks associated with service learning range from volunteering time with a community organization’s clients to crafting business strategy with the organization’s administration (Burns, 2011; Geringer, Stratemeyer, Canton, & Rice, 2009). Thus, service learning offers a valuable opportunity for students to implement their new skills in a real-world environment while also learning the importance of volunteerism (Astin, Sax, & Avalos, 1999; Burns, 2011).

Student learning outcomes associated with service learning include developing the ability to apply basic course-related concepts, honing skills for problem solving, learning to work within a team, and developing an appreciation for diverse needs and challenges of organizations (Klink & Athaide, 2004). Previous research demonstrates the value of service learning for students’ mastery of course concepts (e.g., Astin & Sax, 1998; Carson & Domangue, 2012; Hagenbuch, 2006; Shaw, 2007) and development of moral sensibilities (e.g., Warnell, 2010; Wilson, 2011). In addition, previous research provides guidance to instructors who wish to implement service learning in their courses (e.g., Klink & Athaide, 2004; Metcalf, 2010; Petkus, Jr., 2000), and examines the importance of matching community partner goals with project goals (Lester, Tomkovick, Wells, Flunker, & Kickul, 2005).

For students and faculty, the value of service learning can be measured in terms of students’ knowledge, skill, and attitude development as well as their satisfaction with the experience. However, it is possible to create value for students and faculty not only in successful service-learning projects, but also in projects that are unsuccessful in meeting all pre-stated goals. For example, Furlow (2010) reported on lessons learned in a class project where students designed a website for local businesses devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Gaining media attention for the website failed, but students were still enlightened by many aspects of the project, including the analysis of communication difficulties that led to the failure.

Service-learning projects require substantial investments from community partners who are typically involved throughout the course in planning, implementing, and evaluating the project (Conville & Kinnell, 2010; Schwartz & Fontenot, 2007). Projects that fail to meet the needs of community partners, or do not add value in other ways, may discourage future engagement. In contrast, projects that are valuable to community partners can result in positive word-of-mouth that broadens the base of potential community partners and strengthens the viability of service learning. Given the importance of community engagement to service learning, it is surprising to find that service-learning research continues its heavy emphasis on student learning and pedagogy at the expense of community impacts (Vernon & Ward, 1999; Sandy & Holland, 2006). Thus, instructors are left with little insight on how to engage community partners in ways that deliver value, even though the ongoing commitment of our community partners is critical to the success of the service-learning pedagogy.

The purpose of this research is to contribute to the existing community engagement literature by examining the value of service learning from the perspective of community partners. To that end, we report the results of a qualitative study aimed at answering two questions: (1) What is the nature of our community partners’ experiences in service-learning projects? (2) What is the value of service learning for our community partners? We begin with a review of the literature that examines the role of the community partner. Next, we describe our research method, and then we present our results. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of findings for designing service-learning courses that deliver value to community partners.

Community Partners in Service Learning

A defining characteristic of service learning is student engagement in activities that meet actual needs of the community partners (Campus Compact, 2003). Participating in a service-learning project involves extensive preparation for the community partner and the instructor prior to beginning the project. Together, they define objectives for student learning, design a structure for interaction between students and the community partner, and select assessment methods to monitor success. Then, students engage with the community partner to discover, define, and meet the community partner’s needs. The final component of the project, student reflection, takes place both while the project is ongoing and after the project is complete. Reflection encourages students to link the project with course concepts and to consider the importance of the project (Campus Compact, 2003).

The groundbreaking study by Vernon and Ward (1999) focused exclusively on the community partner in service learning. Using a multi-method research design, they examined the views of community partners related to service learning. Their findings indicated that community partners experience both benefits and challenges in working with service-learning students, and that agency personnel desire more coordination and communication on the part of their campus counterparts. They concluded that campuses are advised to move away from the “charity model approach” of service learning toward a social change paradigm in which the campus and community are equal partners (Vernon & Ward, 1999, p. 36).

Community partner benefit is mentioned in studies that consider the viewpoints of multiple stakeholders in service learning. For example, Hagenbuch (2006) collected data from community partners in his investigation of how service learning contributes to student benefit. Likewise, Lester et al. (2005) measured community partners’ perceptions of global benefits for both students and their organization’s clientele. Benefits of service-learning projects are described as mutual between community partners and students (Geringer, Stratemeyer, Canton, & Rice, 2009), where at a minimum students gain workplace skills and partner organizations gain access to those skills and knowledge. Most studies regarding service learning do not consider the financial benefit of service-learning projects, but Schwartz and Fontenot (2007) reported that the cash benefit to Habitat for Humanity equaled $3700 after marketing students worked to develop a fundraiser.

More recently, scholars have turned their attention to the nature of relationships between community partners and universities. Miron & Moely (2006) found that community partners reported higher levels of benefits to their agencies when they took a more active role in service-learning projects. Similarly, Sandy and Holland (2006) examined community partners’ views of campus-community partnerships and reported that community partners revealed a “surprising depth of understanding and commitment to student learning” (p. 30). Clayton, Bringle, Senor, Huq, & Morrison (2010) reminded us that “the terms ‘relationship’ and ‘partnership’ are not interchangeable” (p. 5). Stewart and Alrutz (2012) echoed their concern by urging universities to engage in transformative relationships with their community partners, rooted in shared understanding and reciprocity, rather than one-off, transaction-based projects. In transformative relationships, community partners decide jointly with instructors what the learning outcomes and service activities should be in order to simultaneously address classroom objectives and the needs of the community partner. This theoretical lens shifts the notion of service learning. Instead of one-way flows from universities to community partners, this theoretical lens advocates reciprocal resource flows between equal partners.

While it is clear in the literature that service learning has value for community partners, the nature of that value and its contributing factors are less clear. The goal of the current study is to develop an understanding of the value of service learning for community partners. The following section describes the research method employed to give voice to community partners’ views on the value of service learning.


We designed a qualitative study to examine the value of service learning to community partners. The study involved in-depth exploration and comparative analyses across diverse experiences (i.e., different types of community partners, multiple instructors, various courses) to fully describe the phenomenon (Creswell, 2007; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Theoretical sampling was used to identify community partner informants. The aim of theoretical sampling is to “maximize opportunities to compare events, incidents, or happenings to determine how a category varies in terms of its properties and dimensions” (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, 202). Sample size is determined as the study progresses. The goal is to reach theoretical saturation, that is, the point where reports of the phenomenon are redundant and analysis of additional data would offer no new theoretical insight.


Nine community partners participated in the study. All nine community partners engaged in service-learning projects conducted at the same southwestern university within a 12-month time frame. Service learning is a point of distinction for the university, which is listed on the Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement and the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. While all community partners participated in service learning at the same university, the projects spanned multiple disciplinary areas: three in business, two in art, two in family studies, one in architecture, and one in nutrition.

The sample comprised key community partners from three organizations providing social services for children, three agencies supporting families in crisis, an arts community, a food facility, and a hospital foundation, for a total of nine organizations. Five of the nine organizations are affiliated with national service organizations. The organizations range in size from 6 to 41 employees and serve as few as 18 corporate clients and as many as 12,000 individual clients per year. Community partners held managerial positions and served their organizations for an average of 11 years, with a range of 2 to 23 years. Four projects were discrete projects conducted in one semester, four were ongoing relationships spanning multiple semesters, and one was a new relationship expected to continue for more than one semester.

Data Collection and Analysis

A semi-structured interview protocol guided interviews (see Appendix A). Interviews were conducted face-to-face at the community partner’s office and ranged from 30 to 45 minutes. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. A content analysis of interview transcripts was conducted to categorize descriptions of community partners’ service-learning experiences. Content analysis is a research method for the objective, systematic analysis of verbal data (Berelson, 1952; Kassarjian, 1977). Pre-defined codes were developed by the three-member research team, and coding rules were established to ensure consistency in the coding process. The interview protocol supplied 10 categories used in the content analysis. During the coding process, an 11th category emerged — the benefits of service learning to students — that was subsequently defined and coded in all transcripts (Table 1). The unit of analysis was a complete sentence; each unit could be coded under multiple categories.

Each transcript was independently coded by two members of the research team. The researchers were trained in the use of a software tool specifically designed for coding, indexing, and searching qualitative data (NVivo, 2010). The software tool ensured systematic organization of the data, consistent application of codes throughout the coding process, and the ability to retrieve entire categories of content. A training transcript was independently coded by all three researchers, and category definitions were subsequently refined as needed to assure clarity of category definitions and consistency in coding. Overall, the coders achieved 86% agreement across the nine transcripts. Although there is no absolute threshold for the level of inter-rater reliability, agreement in excess of 70% is deemed reliable (Kurasaki, 2000). Differences were reviewed and resolved by consensus.

The research team applied standards for rigor in interpretive research to evaluate the trustworthiness of the data (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The four criteria of the trustworthiness approach (i.e., credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability) correspond to the objective measures used in confirmatory, hypothesis-testing research (i.e., internal validity, external validity, reliability, and objectivity). Credibility was ensured through the use of member checks in which researchers’ interpretations were examined and confirmed by community partners. Transferability was accomplished by collecting data from multiple types of agencies, projects, and disciplines. The use of software for reliable storage and systematic coding of data, tests of inter-rater reliability in coding, and the use of written protocols in data collection and data analysis provide evidence for dependability of findings. Confirmability was addressed through the use of multiple researchers to minimize bias.


The Community Partner’s Experience

Interviews began with a grand tour question that allowed community partners to describe a specific service-learning experience, from beginning to end. Their responses depicted a step-wise process of five stages that progress from initial contact through the wrap-up of a project.

Stage 1 — initial contact. Community partners were asked directly about their motivations for engaging in service learning and involvement during the course of the service-learning experience. In some cases the projects were initiated by the community partner. For some, the impetus was school loyalty: “I graduated in the architecture department and so I went back to a couple of [instructors] that I had. … I requested assistance with a project.” Another stated, “I’m a [university] grad and while I was in both undergraduate and graduate school, I was very involved with a particular [instructor] who was a lot about community service.” Community partners also found instructors through the university-wide service-learning office: “Originally when the call was made to the Service Learning Center, it was to discuss the need that I had to have some help to teach a pre-natal education class…and as I talked to [the staff person], she told me about the college of art and she said, ‘Do you ever need any artwork done for anything?’ and I said, ‘Oh, yes. That would be amazing.’”

In other cases, organizations were contacted by instructors who were searching for service-learning projects for their courses: “When the first class started with us…they did contact the current volunteer coordinator at that time.” Also, “When [the instructor] actually contacted me, he heard about us and I had direct communication with them, and we just kind of set up what the parameters would be for the class.” In one case, the students contacted the community partner at the request of the instructor, “[The students] said that they were assigned by [the instructor] to do a community-involved project and they chose us.” Outcomes and enthusiasm for individual projects did not vary based on who initiated the relationship.

Stage 2 — establishing expectations. In most cases, the instructor and community partner met in advance of the semester to discuss needs, set expectations, and define the plan for the semester. Community partners frequently commented on the need for continued faculty oversight throughout the semester as a key to a success: “[We] started off in the spring, talking about expectations and what we were looking for in terms of needs of our marketing campaign. We identified some of those strengths, and [the faculty member] worked on passing those to the other [instructors], so that worked really well to have that advanced kind of planning session.”

Stage 3 — engaging students. In most cases, community partners met directly with the students who would be working with the organization to introduce the organization, explain how the organization works, and discuss the needs of the organization. In some cases this was done in the classroom: “We actually came in and did an orientation with the class, and there were probably about 30 or so students, and that really helps to educate them a little bit more about what [the organization] does.” In other cases, community partners met with smaller groups or one-on-one: “We began to meet [with the students] and form our ideas and we noticed that this was a need that we had at [the organization] and so we developed the mentoring program.”

Stage 4 — implementing the project. Community partners reported multiple levels of interaction across the project time frame. As previously stated, the three primary stakeholders in service learning are the instructor, the students, and the community partner. The interviews revealed interactions with a fourth stakeholder — the client of the community partner — which is discussed in more detail subsequently. Community partners described ongoing coordination between themselves and the instructors: “[The instructor] was very thoughtful of us, and he coordinated with us, and was very easy to work with. Good professors are key, I think.”

The community partners described contact throughout the semester between themselves and the students: “[A student] was always helping us rearrange the seating for our shows, and helping find cost effective ways of selling our tickets for our auditorium.” Interaction was also reported between the students and the clients served by the community partner’s organization. One community partner had this to say about a mentoring program set up by a group of MBA students: “These kids [the organization’s clients] see these college students coming and interacting with them…the more interaction with the kids, the better it is, even for us.”

In describing how the projects unfolded throughout the semester, the majority of the community partners commented on how eager, creative, smart students make all the difference. This statement sums it up well: “I could just see light bulbs going off in their heads as they were listening and whenever they went off to their teams and talked about things.”

Stage 5 — wrapping up. Depending on the nature of the project, some community partners were presented with final reports, while others did not see the students again after the projects were completed. One community partner listened to nine proposals and voted on which was best: “We had to attend all of their final presentations that culminated all of their knowledge, so it was kind of working hand-in-hand with classroom experience.” Another listened to three presentations: “I think it went really well, it was really fun, and the last three sessions they brought us in and they did their pitch to us as if we were a real client.” A few community partners discussed having a debriefing session to discuss what did and did not work: “At the end of the semester we did a wrap-up. I went to their class and spoke, and we talked about what the experience had been and how they helped us.” While a wrap-up was not reported by the majority of community partners, those who had this experience reported it to be a very valuable component of their service-learning experience.

Although many community partners said they did not receive a tangible outcome from the project, at least a few did: “They gave us a campaign book with their slogan, their strategy, a budget, and we also gave them a mock budget, so that is what they built their campaign around.” Of those who did not receive a tangible report, some expressed a desire for closure after the project. One community partner stated,

It would be kind of nice to get a little bit of feedback from them [the students], even if it is some type of generic survey that we come up with or something, really, about their time here, and see if it really benefited them, and to see what they got out of it.

Another said, “I would like to know where they end up and know if they are using some of the knowledge they gained while they were here and in their professional lives.”

The Value of Service Learning for Community Partners

Community partners were encouraged to report the value of service learning to their organizations as well as to themselves. In doing so, they readily talked about direct benefits to the organization and the organization’s clients. While there was no question to elicit their views on the benefits of service learning to students, they readily expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to contribute to student learning.

Direct benefits of service-learning projects. Community partners often described the immediate benefits of service-learning participation in terms of the extra hands of volunteers to carry out the daily work of their organizations in the face of resource constraints: “We’re a nonprofit organization, and so we have a small staff, and so the … relief that they’ve been able to provide in the normal daily tasks has been great for the organization.” Student volunteers were described as energetic and willing to do whatever needed doing, often going well beyond the community partner’s expectations by helping with fundraisers and awareness events.

In addition to volunteer hours, community partners recounted the benefit of access to expertise beyond the capabilities of their organizations: “Working in a college community has a lot of perks because any of those research questions you have, you don’t have to do it yourself; you can use a student or class.” One project specifically addressed the use of social media to raise brand awareness for the organization:

Our expectation was to really help us look at new social media strategies … and to, as far as brand recognition, to see if people knew about us or not. … We also were hoping to glean from them some new ideas of how to spin volunteering for [this agency] to the public.

Community partners expressed great appreciation for the opportunity to “engage young minds … and recruit some creative thinkers” to address issues facing their organizations. Even when projects did not produce the expected results, community partners reported that the process provided new perspectives and information to “chew on in our staff meetings.” As one community partner summed up: “Strategies some of us had never even thought of before are now going through our minds.”

Supporting the organization’s mission. The most powerful stories told by community partners described the value of service learning in helping their organizations to achieve their missions. The students themselves were described as invaluable resources that facilitate “life-changing experiences” for clients:

Because the children here … face extreme hurdles, and part of what assists them in overcoming those hurdles is having a positive role model, and so … we’re able to provide such a life-saving, or life-changing, experience for our kids here that it really has had positive impacts on the families.

Service learning provided the necessary support for one agency to launch a mentoring program with university students as mentors to children from dysfunctional homes:

One client, for example, did not have custody of her children … her child was coming to the mentoring room and therapy …. And [because of] the positive impact that the mentoring program was having on her son … she regained full custody of her son. They are still coming to mentoring, still coming to counseling, and their lives are rejoined. So that is one specific instance in which mentoring saved a relationship between a mom and her son.

One agency completely reorganized to incorporate the availability of students engaged in service learning into its business model in order to serve clients more efficiently and effectively: “We would have waiting lists that were just endless. … Now with the program revamped, … we usually don’t have a waiting list …. This has been wonderful for our clients because they have been able to get the services they needed quickly.”

Serving the students. An unexpected finding was the extent to which community partners readily talked about how much they valued the opportunity to be involved in students’ learning and development. As one alumna said, “I wanted to come back … and help students learn just like I did whenever I was a student.” Another reported that service learning was “an extremely valuable experience for me, so I like to be the promoter of continuing that sort of actual hands-on type of community learning experience for students.”

Non-alumni also valued the opportunity to provide “real-world” experience for students: “I did want to get those students that experience of actually doing a presentation in front of someone who was a businessperson … I wanted them to have that opportunity.” Community partners described the intrinsic satisfaction gained in guiding students as they discover their vocations:

I enjoy watching them grow, and start to think about, ‘Am I really about to do this?’ And really make some decisions here about what they are going to do once they finish. So that is really wonderful to watch that process.

Although the majority of community partners reported positive outcomes and evaluations, the service-learning experience was not without challenges. The most frequently mentioned frustration was students who waited until the last minute and did not follow deadlines: “It seems at the end of the semester, [the students] all show up at the same time to get their credit in.” Another contact person for a project said the students were “not very good at planning, so they would wait until the last minute to ask for assistance…they would contact us Friday night and want to know if we could answer the questions for them.” The community partners were careful to communicate that this was not the case for all students, “there were just some of those instances, but it wasn’t that many at all.” Another called it an “age-old problem.”


The goal of this research was to understand the value of service learning to community partners. Community partners described five stages in their experiences of service-learning projects: (1) initial contact; (2) establishing expectations; (3) engaging students; (4) implementing the project, and; (5) wrapping up. In describing this process, community partners provide insight into factors that set the stage for a valuable service-learning experience from their perspective. First, they expressed the need for continuous faculty oversight of projects. Competent faculty members who conscientiously plan for and monitor the project are crucial to success. Faculty should, therefore, be prepared to commit the necessary time to coordinate activities with the community partner and to supervise student participation in the project. To prevent misunderstandings, instructors are advised to clearly outline the time commitment in advance for all parties including the community partner, the instructor, and the students. Second, community partners reported the value of participating in the initiation of the project by conducting an orientation for students. Engagement early in the course results in clear communication about expectations for the service-learning project.

Community partners described three dimensions of the value of service-learning projects: (1) direct benefits to the organization; (2) support of the mission, and; (3) serving the students. Direct benefits included volunteer hours and access to expertise. For community partners with limited resources, service-learning projects provide assistance that the organization otherwise could not financially afford. However, the benefit of additional volunteer hours and access to expertise is sometimes diluted by the cost of managing students’ propensity to procrastinate. Faculty can address this issue by structuring deadlines within the project. For example, volunteer hours could be distributed across the course with bi-weekly deadlines to avoid the end-of-semester rush. Similarly, problem-based projects with tangible outcomes can be staged to require students to submit portions of final reports as the semester progresses, instead of submitting everything at the end of the term.

The most important dimension of value for community partners was the extent to which service-learning projects support the organization’s mission. When community partners were in need of solutions, students brought fresh perspectives and new energy. Service learning delivers the highest level of value for community partners when there is synergy between the mission of the organization and the goals of the service-learning project. Thus, faculty are advised to design service-learning projects with careful attention to the relationship between the project and the community partner’s mission.

A significant finding is the value community partners place on their role as mentors and co-teachers in service-learning projects. Community partners expressed a sincere dedication to the students and their learning experiences. Similar to faculty, community partners value the opportunity to design and implement projects that deliver high-quality learning experiences for students. Hence, it is important for faculty to provide feedback on the knowledge and skills the students are gaining from the projects. Community partners value closure on the projects. Therefore, instructors are advised to design service-learning courses in a way that allows students to report their learning to community partners, such as formal presentations or final reflection papers. Moreover, it is desirable for instructors to schedule debriefings with their community partners to close the loop on the experience. Giving community partners closure increases their perception of value, which, in turn, facilitates an ongoing relationship with the community partner and ensures positive word-of-mouth to other potential community partners.

Limitations and Further Research

The limitations of this study point to directions for further research. Findings suggest multiple dimensions of value for community partners as well as a set of factors that contribute to creating value. A survey could be developed to measure the various dimensions of value and to test the relationship between value and contributing factors. Survey research could address the limitation of generalizability of findings that is inherent in the qualitative design employed in the present study. The present study was conducted in a southwestern U.S. university town. Findings could be different for similar studies conducted in other regions of the country, or other countries, with different underlying cultural norms and values. Such studies might discover additional dimensions of value or identify other factors that predict value creation for community partners.


Based on the preliminary findings of this study, courses involving service learning should include the following:

• Early involvement of the community partner; a meeting prior to the start of the project to establish expectations in recommended.

• Close attention to the alignment of service- learning project goals with the mission of the organization.

• Continuous faculty oversight of the project.

• Providing closure to the community partner; communicating how the project benefited students is warranted.

• Formal distribution of student volunteer hours and/or staggered deadlines across the semester to avoid the end of semester rush.

Service learning is pedagogy with the potential for powerful impact on students, faculty, and community partners. It is our hope that findings in this study will be useful in advancing our understanding of how to design service-learning projects that deliver value to all stakeholders.


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About the Authors

Shannon B. Rinaldo is an associate professor of marketing in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University. Donna F. Davis is an associate professor in marketing in the College of Business at the University of South Florida. Josh Borunda is a research assistant in the Rawls

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