Reaching Out from the University Walls: The Power of Community Partnerships

In Kathy O’Byrne’s words, “The world of non-profits is different from academic culture, from everything from timeframes and deadlines to the dissemination of findings or results…but the collaboration between students and professionals is powerful.” Through the development of course work that strives to link theory with practice, Kathy O’Byrne and her colleagues at UCLA have addressed the needs of both non-profit organizations—who need program evaluation research – and students – who require hands on service-learning course experience. Based on a symbiotic partnership between student learners and community leadership, the model that O’Byrne and her colleagues provide offer youth media professionals opportunities to enter the classroom as co-learners and instructors, reaping shared benefits of engaged learning.
The following article provides an example of an alternative, inexpensive, and more practical model of program evaluation that incorporates academia and community partnerships. Evaluation is a necessity for non-profit organizations for grants, program assessment, decision-making and policy work. The recent investments of major funders exploring evaluation strategies demonstrates the importance of this work in strengthening the youth media field. To review such evaluation reports and toolkits created by Social Policy Research Associates supported by Open Society Institute and Surdna, go to To read a previous YMR article on non-profit program evaluation, read Jennifer Moore’s, “Getting Evaluated—And Noticed: How to build evidence of impact on a tight budget” here.

Several years ago, many faculty members at UCLA and other universities realized non-profit agencies were making repeated requests for help with program evaluation. Funders were requiring more and more evaluation from non-profits, yet the organizations had no staff members with experience, expertise or time to meet those requirements. A series of casual conversations among faculty regarding this issue lead to a plan.
My colleagues and I began enrolling agency staff members from public health non-profits alongside UCLA undergraduates in an upper-division course. There would be three goals. First, we could provide community partners with a concrete piece of research and information by having students conduct a program evaluation study as part of the class. Second, we could provide training for staff members to continue their evaluation work for their organization, once the class was completed. And third, we could create new career paths for undergraduates interested in public service careers through their service-learning experience with these organizations.
With a small grant from our UCLA Center for Community Partnerships, we launched the effort and recruited community partners from diverse organizations across L.A. County. For months before the class began, we met with community partners to discuss details of their program including what their research questions, and how the answers to these questions, would build their capacity to better serve their clients and/or constituencies.
Research questions created by the community partners framed the program evaluation studies for the class. In the first four weeks of the course, students read a series of required texts to learn the theory of program evaluation. These texts included seminal works in the field of program evaluation that teach basic methodologies and concepts students use in their work.
In the next four weeks of the quarter, teams of students collect and analyze data at these organization sites instead of attending class. They learn to deal with ambiguity of data, the culture of non-profit agencies, the ethics of research, how to use technology in research, and the challenges of working in teams to create high quality program evaluation research. The course ends with a public event where the student teams report their findings to a campus and community wide audience.
This course is not a typical academic course. It includes the collaboration with leaders in the community who physically attend and become part of the class. Often, courses at the university do not offer this framework, (as it is a costly option) or have co-instructors outside academia (in this case, community partners or professionals in the non-profit sector). The work students’ conduct outside of class not only offers an organization a program evaluation report, but training modules to incorporate for future evaluation research.
This alternative structure and method of teaching research skills has been so successful, the course has doubled in size over the last three years. The testimonials from UCLA undergraduates and community partners are moving and show that this approach is not only useful but highly desired.
Key insights I learned from leading a community based research course have been to:
• Realize that the world of non-profits is different from academic culture, from everything from timeframes and deadlines to the dissemination of findings or results.
• Pick projects that “have legs.” A good program evaluation is one that will be used for some purpose. The findings should help with program planning or development, decision-making, advocacy or the next grant proposal.
• Involve community partners in the planning of evaluation and research questions from the very start.
• Understand that students, instructors and community partners are all more engaged, motivated and enthusiastic when the standard frameworks of an undergraduate course are altered to include active learning.
• Realize it is both possible and extremely rewarding to have community partners and undergraduates in class together.
• Include technology training (e.g. GIS mapping) as part of class projects.
• Frontload all the reading. Then leave at least four or five weeks for hands-on data collection and analysis.
• Have students write progress reports in teams during the data collection/analysis timeframe. Include the individual responsibilities or contributions of each team member so the workload is evenly and fairly distributed.
• Have an “evaluation of the evaluation” by community partners, to offer feedback on the quality and relevance of the study.
• Place web-based tutorials, design tips and completed projects on both university and the non-profit websites.
• Make sure to have a recognition or celebration event at the end to showcase findings, acknowledge the work and bring campus and community partners together. Have students bring friends and family members. Be sure to invite key faculty and administrators, who are interested in undergraduate research or engaged scholarship.
As an outcome of this course, students exhibit a high level of dedication and responsibility to a “real world” audience, especially when working to collect and analyze data that can be given back to the community partner at the end of the quarter. They learn to make decisions that are ethical and respectful of community partners. Similarly, community partners are transformed, not only through the creation of new knowledge, but also through gaining skills that can help build the capacity of their organizations.
Community partners see the joint research projects as working towards social justice, and organizing community residents oftentimes works to advocate for meaningful change around issues of access and equity. Students receive influential and high-level service-learning experience as non-profits receive evaluation reports of their own creation while integrating within the academy as co-learners and instructors.
These service-learning projects respond to an identified community need for assistance with program evaluation. I recommend other universities connect with community partners and professionals in the non-profit sector, including of course, the youth media field.
It is clear that bridging both the university and non-profit organizations (or professionals) with an alternative approach to collective learning and teaching is key to a future of community engagement, leadership and partnerships.
It is gratifying to see service-learning research products used in real-world situations with our community partners. At UCLA, we are determined to create additional courses that use “research as service” in the near future, to enrich the culture of our research university and make community learning a cornerstone of undergraduate education.
The collaboration between students and professionals is powerful, and often produces material and experiences that are beneficial to both parties. As a professor at UCLA who relies on community partnerships, I encourage professionals in the youth media field, as well as professors across the nation, to join forces in building alliances for students, youth, and the future. College students are hungry for field work experience and can benefit from having the expertise of youth media professionals to contribute to, and even co-teach, college courses.
Youth media has a strong foundation across the globe that college students can engage with, examine, and document. If media professionals work with the university, additional exposure and research can only benefit their work and subsequent programs. Community partnerships is an excellent pathway to connect academia with youth media professionals – to share leadership, evaluation research, and expand the field in new, powerful domains.
Kathy O’Byrne is a Professor and Director of the UCLA Center for Community Learning.

Evaluation is a necessity for non-profit organizations for grants and program assessment.

2 thoughts on “Reaching Out from the University Walls: The Power of Community Partnerships”

  1. very comprehensive and meticulous from all points of view, its good! Just excellent website.

Comments are closed.