Outreach and Engagement Staff and Communities of Practice: A Journey from Practice to Theory for an Emerging Professional Identity and Community

Susan B. Harden and Katherine Loving

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The emergence and recognition of outreach and engagement staff and non-tenure track faculty in higher education literature as key figures in the success of university outreach and community engagement are welcome developments for these practitioners. This article describes the perceptions of outreach and engagement staff at large, public research universities with decentralized engagement initiatives. The authors describe efforts to organize outreach and community engagement staff to create supportive networks, improve practice, provide professional development opportunities, and advocate for practitioner interests and needs. Community-of-practice theory offers a model for connecting, organizing, and sustaining outreach and engagement staff practitioners and their emerging professional identity.


In the past three decades, American higher education has expanded commitments to serving the public good (Chambers, 2005; Jacoby, 2009; Saltmarsh & Hartley, 2011). Much of the conversation has centered on the institutionalization of community-engagement (Battistoni & Longo, 2011). Driving the conversation are higher education networks, 21 new initiatives between 1978 and 2008, organized with a mission to promote community and civic engagement in higher education (Hartley, 2011). As Jacoby (2015) notes, most higher education mission statements include citizenship, democracy, or social responsibility as student learning outcomes. As a result of this call for a deeper commitment to the public good, there has been an increase in the number of the academic staff and non-tenure-track faculty members recently hired to facilitate community-university partnerships (Kiyama, Lee, & Rhoades, 2012). However, research institutions have been lagging their private college and public community liberal arts college and university counterparts in commitments to community engagement (Stanton, 2007). The complexity and decentralized nature of research universities contribute to uneven resource allocations of engagement resources and therefore “despite strategic steps taken by institutional leaders to advance engagement at research institutions, the level of implementation on these campuses is likely to vary considerably across units” (Weerts & Sandman, 2010, p. 703).

Consequently, community engagement practitioners at research institutions work in isolation in unique roles compared to their co-workers, often in new and innovative positions. As a result, outreach and engagement staffs have questions about their new and developing professional identity and seek deeper understanding of their work. Recent studies indicate that the work of engagement requires unique functions, skills, and values (Weerts & Sandman, 2010). Do these roles constitute a cohesive professional identity for outreach and engagement staff that can be used in clarifying professional development opportunities and assessment of institutional impact? If so, can this group of workers connect in ways that overcome positional isolation and improve their practice, both on their campuses and within national engagement networks? In this essay, the authors describe the emergence of a unique professional identity for outreach and engagement staff and a common set of functions, skills, and values in these roles at the University of Wisconsin–Madison enhanced by developing a community of practice. This model for connecting and organizing outreach and engagement staff has expanded to other universities, a national network, and an annual conference, the Engagement Scholarship Consortium.

Emerging Professional Identity

While recent research is rich regarding the impact of civic or community engagement initiatives on students (Jacoby, 2009) and faculty (Boyte & Fretz, 2011; Presley, 2011; O’Meara, 2011), the implications of the expansion of the engagement mission on staff are less known (Kiyama, Lee, & Rhoades, 2012). Consequently, it is instructive for staff to look at service-learning faculty for defining elements of an emerging professional identity. Stanton, Giles, and Cruz (1999) note that pioneers in service-learning pedagogy came to higher education from multiple paths (clergy, community organizations, government programs, and academia); worked independently in their institutions and often against standard norms in higher education; felt disconnected from similar colleagues at other colleges or universities; and have worked 50 years to conceptualize their approach and institutionalize service-learning as a pedagogy and field. Early service-learning practitioners shared similar characteristics including a sense of agency, independence, ethical motivations, political convictions, a desire to serve, a concern for how service was being applied in higher education, a belief in cross cultural learning, and reflective pedagogy. Feelings of isolation among service-learning practitioners created a need for institutionalized networks to share information and provide support. The Society for Field Experience Education was founded in 1971 and developed an informal community of practitioners to gather and talk, with the focus being on dialogue, “more sharing, less competition” (Stanton, Giles, & Cruz, 1999, p. 155). Emerging professional identities can develop when professionals feel isolated, yet share common characteristics, professional values, and need for a broader community.

Outreach and Engagement Staff Roles

Outreach and Engagement staffs play critical roles in advancing community engagement on their campuses. Specifically, when studied, engagement initiatives at research universities were primarily executed by outreach and engagement staff with backgrounds as practitioners and strong connections to the community partners served (Weerts & Sandmann, 2008). Outreach and engagement staff are profiled as “boundary-spanners,” as they are responsible for the interacting with partners outside of the institution and “community-based problem solvers,” implying that the skills characterizing the work of outreach and engagement staff are largely technical and hands on, managing the daily tasks involved with advancing the partnership (Weerts & Sandman, 2008, 2010). As a result of these relationships, community partners base their evaluation of institutional engagement on the quality of their relationships with whom they identify as the boundary-spanners, most often the outreach and engagement staff at research institutions (Weerts & Sandmann, 2008).

Outreach and engagement staffs also play important roles internally within their campus engagement efforts. Managerial professionals involved with engagement activities, as defined by outreach and engagement staff at the mid-level of the university hierarchy, were the coordinators of social networks of other managerial professionals on campus that helped sustain outreach efforts and maintain strong community-university ties (Kiyama, Lee, & Rhoades, 2012). As outreach and engagement staff can effectively build partnership relationships and utilize their social networks, the theory of communities of practice can serve as a valuable mechanism for organizing, especially on campuses that lack a centralized infrastructure to share information and provide professional development opportunities.

The Community of Practice Model

Communities of practice are “groups of people who share a common concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002, p. 4). Communities of practice help to create a sense of belonging, encourage a spirit of inquiry, and instill confidence.

The concept of communities of practice, originally developed by Lave and Wenger (1991), has been applied in broad contexts including higher education, as well as social, educational, and management sciences (Barton & Tusting, 2005; Blanton & Stylianou, 2009). As Wenger et al. (2002) note: “Communities of practice are a natural part of organizational life. They will develop on their own and many will flourish, whether or not the organization recognizes them” (p. 12).

Stages of Development

Communities of practice generally comprise three elements: a domain of knowledge, a social experience, and a shared practice that makes work within the domain more effective and efficient. Like other models of organizational development, Wenger et al. (2002) describe communities of practice as changing as they develop through stages, beginning from inception, moving through potential and on to coalescing. The first stage of a community of practice, inception, is characterized by a loose, informal social network of people who begin to discover common issues and interests and explore the idea of creating a more formal association. The greatest challenge for a community of practice is establishing a scope for the domain around the passions and interests of founding and potential members. The group must explore a vision that imagines greater value from the collective association, after which the association begins to discuss the potential areas for knowledge acquisition and learning. As communities of practice coalesce, members grow trust in their association and formulate a value proposition for the ongoing community. They describe the later developmental stages of communities of practice as influencing the broader organization within which communities of practice are situated. As the community of practice evolves, the focus shifts from start-up to sustaining. After the stages of inception, potential, and coalescing, the community of practice develops through the stages of maturity, stewardship, and transformation. It is in these later stages that an established community of practice begins to influence the broader organization through the collective power of informed practice. As the community of practice begins to build and validate core competencies and knowledge, members begin to transfer that knowledge within their work units and the benefits of the community of practice to the broader organization become apparent. It is at this point that the voice of the community of practice begins to be heard outside of the community of practice.

Organizing Outreach and Engagement Staff: A Case to Consider

At the large public research universities where the authors practice (UNC Charlotte, UW–Madison) outreach and community engagement staff work in relative isolation from other engagement colleagues, without campus-wide coordination of the outreach enterprise, and in decentralized institutions where operations are primarily unit and discipline based. Administrative mechanisms do not exist for horizontal, cross-campus connections, resource sharing, or even communication that would benefit practitioners performing similar roles and functions on behalf of their home units.

Without campus-wide infrastructure and coordination, informally connecting with other outreach and engagement is challenging. While some of these staff members do hold titles that indicate their outreach and community engagement responsibilities, many do not, and as such are not easily identified. Examples of these staff include a precollege program specialist, the community service director at a medical school, civic engagement coordinator, manager of science outreach for k-12 students and teachers, a community-based program coordinator focused on increasing social capital, assistant director for community-based learning, an outreach specialist for a grant-funded project for high-school students with special needs, and a staff person at a dairy institute who facilitates partnerships with dairy producers worldwide. These are academic staff with primary responsibilities for building and sustaining community-university partnerships and the intention of these partnerships is not revenue generation but addressing community needs and serving the public good. Outreach and engagement staff may also have other instructional or clinical elements to their duties, but these duties are secondary to sustaining mutually beneficial partnerships that respond to community issues.

There is something ironic about the circumstance of outreach and engagement staff feeling isolated within their institutions from colleagues doing similar work and lacking in outlets for professional development. It is important to note that while the authors work with many tenure-track faculty doing engagement, often in close partnership within the community-university projects, the authors felt a difference, professionally, from tenure-track faculty. The accountability, recognition, and power structures are different between staff positions and tenure-track faculty including the professional pathway of promotion and tenure and the power embodied in faculty-governance, the privilege of academic freedom, and autonomy of the workday within tenure-track faculty positions (Kiyama, Lee, & Rhoades, 2012). While the partnership work of community-engagement may involve tenure-track faculty utilizing similar skills and values of engagement, our professional systems of advancement and power are very different. And consequently, the authors believe that these different incentives, opportunities, and privileges afforded each group impact our professional identity and the authors desired bonding across those similarities.

It is also important to note that the authors felt a difference with staff on campus whose accountabilities are not community-university partnerships. While the process for promotion may be similar, the accountabilities and recognitions are very different. The impact and benefits of community-university partnerships are relatively unseen on a daily basis by staff who work on campus and support on-campus operations and who observe, first-hand, the professional contributions of their on-campus focused colleagues. The lack of decentralization and infrastructure may also contribute to the lack of awareness about the daily tasks, off-campus accountabilities, and benefits of community-engagement work by on-campus staff who perform more traditional university work.

As a first step, the authors made efforts to informally connect with outreach and engagement staff colleagues at their own institutions. In informal conversations, it became apparent that outreach and engagement staff shared common perceptions and feelings around their roles, such as leading without positional power; working in an institutional structure designed for excellence in research, not responsiveness to communities; bearing the risks associated with innovative programming and non-traditional university work; and justifying the time investment required to cultivate relationships with community partners. Moreover, they were concerned that their commonly held skills, like process facilitation, collaboration, and systems thinking, were too generalist in nature and therefore not valued in large research institutions of intense specialization. Even qualities that made them well-suited for both outreach and engagement work and navigating internal institutional structures like an entrepreneurial spirit, the patience to build strategic relationships, and the ability to interpret the needs and interests of diverse stakeholders were not recognized by outreach and engagement colleagues as professional assets until they began to connect with each other around their distinct challenges and skills.

The discovery of shared professional concerns of outreach and engagement staff moved from informal conversations and perceptions to the formal research when, at the October 2007 National Outreach Scholarship Conference (NOSC) in Madison, Wisconsin, David Weerts and Lorilee Sandmann (2007) presented their research on boundary-spanning roles in higher education and outlined the predominant role that outreach and engagement staff play as the boundary-spanners at research universities. Weerts and Sandman engaged the audience in generating a long list of skills and roles like “catalyst, surrogate, translator, agitator of the system,” terms not commonly found in university job classifications and yet so descriptive of the authors’ day-to-day work in building and sustaining university-community partnerships. The authors applied the theory of boundary spanning, originally used by Weerts and Sandmann to characterize the facilitation of community-university partnerships, to define the identity of an emerging professional community: university outreach and community engagement staff who facilitate projects, programs, services, research, and relationships with community partners, with a set of shared knowledge, skills and values and a professional identity distinct from that of tenure-track faculty members.

Organizing the Organizers and Creating A Community of Community-Builders

This sense of a new professional identity called boundary-spanners and evidence of the critical role that staff and non-tenure-track faculty members play in the university outreach and engagement enterprise created a foundation for community building which eventually involved the authors. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the author initiated an invitation for formal connections with other outreach and engagement staff members, hoping that by gathering together, they would offer support to each other and improve their service to community partners and to the university. A call for participants attracted 35 interested staff members from across campus. Recognizing that the development of a campus-wide structure for boundary spanners would require additional support and expertise, a co-author agreed to share some of the leadership tasks.

The unique challenge of trying to organize outreach and engagement whose professional identities are emerging led to the effort to coalesce around goals rather than boundary-spanning roles. When the 35 who initially expressed interest in the network were surveyed, a broad range of outreach and engagement roles were represented, but 100% agreement was reached on the proposed goals of the group, which were to:

• facilitate communication and collaboration,
• share information and resources,
• improve the quality of outreach and engagement staff’s work,
• support professional development,
• improve the ability of the campus to meet community needs,
• advocate for campus decisions and policies that support partnerships and outreach work.

As the organization developed around these goals, a trusted advisor from the Office of Human Resource Development was enlisted to support the development of the network, which he identified as a peer-to-peer self-organizing system, better known as a “community of practice.”

As stated earlier, communities of practice can develop organically as was the case at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. According to the theory, the development of the community of practice network indicates that the group is following a predictable theoretical trajectory for the community of practice model and is coalescing around something real, important and worthwhile. All of the group’s initial goals were typical of community-of-practice functions, though that was not known by the authors at the earliest stages of formation. Consequently, those goals informally bound the group together as a community of practice before members had a clear understanding of their common roles, knowledge, and skills. The goals also served to organize members around their professional struggles rather than their strengths, and gave the group its first indication that existing challenges should be addressed instead of simply creating new resources.

While at the time the group leaders had not explored community-of-practice theory sufficiently to understand the developmental tasks in which they were engaged, early attempts to establish similar experiences, corresponding domains of knowledge, and shared practice led to the identification of a common set of professional challenges and opportunities:

• professional identity and isolation,
• the power of innovation and the burden of bureaucracy,
• the challenge of measuring and describing progress and success,
• the risks and benefits of collaboration,
• functional leadership versus positional power.

Over the next two years, the community of practice examined these challenges, reframed some as opportunities, and began to identify common functions, tasks, and roles, as shown in Table 1, by analyzing the themes that emerged from conversations at monthly meetings, informal focus groups, and other network activities. Similar to the list generated at the NOSC workshop on boundary-spanning roles (Weerts & Sandmann, 2007), these shared practices would prove to be a powerful organizing tool, and the most persuasive way to communicate shared purpose and professional identity to potential members (Table 1).

Articulating these functions, roles, and skills has helped determine professional development needs, suggested content for new staff orientation and onboarding, offered guidance in recruitment and hiring, and perhaps most importantly, has given legitimacy to the nimble, generalist, and relational strengths of outreach and engagement practitioners. This early work brought the community of practice to the point at which the community of practices’ domain could clearly be identified as “the art and science of community-university partnerships, outreach and engagement” (Loving, 2012).

From Network to System of Influence

As the community of practice coalesced, two main goals were identified: to create a horizontal structure across campus units in order to support engagement professionals in achieving the community-of-practice functions mentioned above, and to ensure vertical alignment in the implementation of the outreach and engagement mission of the university. The latter includes increasing campus capacity to respond to community priorities; supporting structures and policies that sustain quality community engagement; addressing the challenges inherent in leading without positional power; and engaging boundary spanners at all levels in leadership, planning and decision-making (Figure 1).
Weerts and Sandmann (2010) make the point that community-university boundary spanners operate from all levels of the institutional hierarchy. While the community of practice staff network is built on the needs and interests of “community-based problem solvers” or outreach and community engagement staff practitioners, effective engagement requires that the multiple types of boundary spanners within campus align their priorities and internal communication (Weerts & Sandmann, 2010). Consequently, administrators should know what practitioners are doing and vice versa, and their efforts should pursue the same broad mission and goals and reflect shared values around community-university partnerships. The desire of community of practice leaders to improve institutional alignment was true to boundary-spanning theory.

Table 1

Figure 1

Emerging Identity and Community at a National Level

Having successfully connected and organized at the
local institutional level, community of practice leaders pursued the broader goal of connecting, organizing, and affecting change on a national level. The National Outreach Scholarship Conference served as the venue, as a bow of acknowledgment to the Weerts and Sandman 2007 session on boundary spanning roles that had first inspired campus-based organizing. At the 2009 National Outreach Scholarship Conference at the University of Georgia, the coauthor initiated a meeting of outreach and engagement staff and non-tenure-track faculty members who wished to connect with one another and establish themselves as a conference constituency. Fifteen attendees from eight institutions gathered to explore the establishment of formal networking, presenting, and professional development opportunities for outreach and engagement professionals using the National Outreach Scholarship Conference as annual gathering place. Like the communities of practice staff network, the attendees developed a set of goals relating both to the “horizontal” needs of the staff—improving practice—and the resulting “vertical” institutional imperatives as modeled in Figure 1. Five clear goals emerged:

1) Establish an identity and voice in the national outreach community.
2) Offer targeted professional development opportunities.
3) Provide a national venue for sharing the work of outreach and engagement staff.
4) Celebrate the distinct roles and accomplishments of outreach and engagement staff.
5) Create a national community of practice for engagement professionals.

In pursuit of these goals, the attendees strongly supported the idea of a National Outreach Scholarship Conference affiliated, annual program developed specifically for engagement professionals, perhaps best offered as a preconference meeting. In 2010 at the National Outreach Scholarship Conference at North Carolina State University, a pilot preconference workshop for outreach and engagement staff was developed by Loving and UW–Madison faculty colleague Randy Stoecker. By 2011 at Michigan State University, the Outreach and Engagement Staff Workshop was formally affiliated with the National Outreach Scholarship Conference, supported and funded by the conference executive board and attended by thirty university staff members from the United States and Canada, forming the core membership of an inter-campus community of practice for outreach and engagement staff practitioners. This early success resulted in ongoing support from the National Outreach Scholarship Conference, now known as the Engagement Scholarship Consortium (ESC), for the annual Outreach and Engagement Staff Workshop preconference meeting, as well as the distribution list and a web site, thus institutionalizing this bi-national community of practice. The annual preconference workshop for outreach and engagement staff attracts 50-75 participants and continues to grow in terms of institutional support from ESC.

Benefits of Scaling Up and Implications for the Field

Communities of practice are primarily learning and knowledge management organizations; the community remains most vibrant and effective when members are improving their practice together. While local communities of practice can meet campus-specific needs, a national community has the potential to aggregate the needs and interests of practitioners at multiple campuses to develop broadly-relevant and widely-accessible professional development opportunities and curricula specifically for outreach and engagement staff. Professional development at this scale is integral to the establishment of a new professional identity as boundary-spanners and of new directions for research.

As the parallel fields of engaged scholarship and engagement scholarship develop, a national community of practice for staff may have the power to take on a system-of-influence role in a conversation that has, to date, not had unified staff representation. Advocating for standards of practice, conveying the importance of integrating the voices of community partners, and ensuring that staff are recognized as legitimate experts and researchers in community-campus partnerships, are among the contributions that can be made at the national level to improve the quality
and inclusiveness of community-engaged theory and practice.

Questions for Future Research

Weerts and Sandmann’s research (2008) confirmed the value of community-university boundary spanners to community partners and to the outreach and engagement enterprise of universities, inspiring the initial organizing of the local and national networks. Those networks now offer a research platform for addressing unanswered questions including: What professional development opportunities are most effective in preparing and advancing the skill set of engagement professionals? How do institutions facilitate and inhibit work with community partners? These formally organized communities of practice for outreach and engagement practitioners provide a way for the group to be accessible for further inquiry and investigation, a critical step in building our emerging professional identity.

This application of the community-of-practice model also deserves examination. While the networks described developed along a typical community-of-practice trajectory, there are still challenges to explore: How can we measure and document the value of outreach and engagement staff to colleagues, institutions, and communities? How are engagement communities of practice best situated and sustained within institutions of higher education? Communities of practice are often self-organizing systems, and finding the right balance between organic growth and administrative support can be difficult. Just enough support allows the community to be self-directed and highly responsive to the needs of members, while too much support suppresses momentum and suggests competing agendas (Wenger et al., 2002). Research may indicate another model or organizational format for best supporting and advancing the work of boundary-spanning staff on a long-term basis.

Conclusions and Next Steps
As the national community continues to coalesce, a primary task will be navigating the developmental challenges of this second stage in the community of practice model—the tension between taking the time to build trusting relationships among members and demonstrating immediate value to keep interest and participation high (Wenger et al., 2002). The value of networking around the identified domain—the art and science of community-university partnerships, outreach and engagement—must be established. Affiliating with the Engagement Scholarship Consortium offers the opportunity to extend targeted professional development content and a forum for sharing scholarly work to a group that has only recently been formally recognized as an important constituency of the conference. Establishing communication mechanisms as well as relationships with other national outreach and community engagement organizations will also be critical to the network’s ability to grow in relationship and relevance over time. Can a national community be nurtured successfully, or will it exist primarily to support its institution-based counterparts?

As UW–Madison’s local community of practice matures in the third stage of development, it faces a different set of challenges. The core challenge will be to expand the network boundaries while staying true to the organization’s core domain and purpose (Wenger et al., 2002). The associated tasks include finding a place in the institution as the community of practice gains more influence, and documenting the value of the network for both internal and external audiences


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About the Authors

Susan B. Harden is an assistant professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Katherine Loving is manager of Campus Community Partnerships, University Health Services, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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