Benefits of Service Learning

Thousands of community-based organizations engage millions of young people in service and service-learning. Though research in K-12 and higher education settings shows a wide range of benefits of effective service-learning, much less is known about the actual value or benefits of service and service-learning in community-based settings. This fact sheet highlights some of the emerging knowledge in this field based on theory, process evaluations, and field wisdom—knowing that more rigorous research is needed.

What Are Community-Based Organizations?

There are many kinds of community-based organizations, and there are many ways to define their scope. For purposes of this overview, community-based organizations include:

  • Social service and other nonprofit providers or associations that may engage young people (and adults) as volunteers;
  • Community-based youth development organizations and after-school programs that include service or service-learning as part of their programming; and
  • Faith-based organizations that provide services and offer service experiences as part of their programming.

Service and service-learning take many different forms in community settings. One study identified, for example, 11 different models in school-based programs and 15 different forms in community-based programs. These include a series of programs on a specific issue, short-term projects, summer programs, crisis response activities, and youth advisory and planning groups. Hence, one size clearly does not fit all.

Benefits for Youth Participants

Youth who participate in high-quality community-based service-learning are likely to benefit in a number of ways:

  • Young people gain access to the range of supports and opportunities (or developmental assets) they need to grow up healthy, caring, and responsible. One study of youth civic activism found that these settings had particular strength in cultivating youth and community involvement.
  • Increased sense of self-efficacy as young people learn that they can impact real social challenges, problems, and needs.
  • Higher academic achievement and interest in furthering their education.
  • Enhanced problem-solving skills, ability to work in teams, and planning abilities.
  • Enhanced civic engagement attitudes, skills and behaviors. Many leaders in public service today speak about how they were nurtured, inspired, and shaped in early experiences in community service or volunteering.

Benefits for Youth Development Organizations

Youth development organizations and after-school programs that use service-learning can benefit from this strategy in a number of ways:

  • Young people are more likely to stay engaged when they feel their participation is meaningful and they can make useful contributions through service and social action.
  • Service-learning gives an intentional strategy for addressing goals for learning and personal development through civic engagement and community service.
  • Service-learning can cultivate connections between the organization, schools, and other community groups.
  • Service-learning can increase program staff and volunteers' level of engagement, leadership capacity, and satisfaction with their work.

It is also noteworthy that effective service-learning practices are closely aligned with effective youth development practices A major report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2002) identified eight factors in community programs that facilitate positive youth development:

  • Physical and psychological safety;
  • Appropriate structure;
  • Supportive relationships;
  • Opportunities to belong;
  • Positive social norms;
  • Support for efficacy and mentoring;
  • Opportunities for skill building; and
  • Integration of family, school, and community efforts.

Done well, service-learning programs addresses all these factors and becomes a particularly useful strategy for increasing self-efficacy and integrating family, school, and community efforts. 

Benefits to Organizations that Utilize Young People as Volunteers

Community-based organizations that engage young people in service and service-learning point to the following kinds of benefits:

  • The opportunity to expand their mission and reach without substantially increasing costs by engaging a cadre of competent, motivated young people who share their time and talents in support of the organization's mission.
  • New energy, ideas, and enthusiasm as well as specialized skills that young people can bring to the organization (such as community skills). Inca Mohamed writes , "Every young person, like every adult, has unique abilities and experience that can expand the capacities and outcomes of [social change] efforts."
  • Increased public support and visibility in the community as young people become ambassadors for the agency in their schools, homes, and other networks.
  • New partnerships and resources that emerge when agencies for service-learning partnerships with schools, youth development organizations, faith-based organizations or others that provide service-learning as part of their programming.
  • By working with youth and getting them committed to its mission, an organization cultivates a new generation of volunteers for either their own organization or their broader cause.

Benefits for Service Recipients, Communities, and Society

Beyond the young people the organizations directly involve, community-based service-learning benefits the people served, their communities, and, ultimately, society:

  • It meets real needs and priorities for individuals and communities, as young people bring new energy, capacity, and creative ideas.
  • Community residents have opportunities to build positive relationships with young people.
  • Communities see youth in a different way—as resources, not problems.
  • A new generation of caring and experienced citizens, activists, and volunteers is cultivated.

Benefits Don't Come Automatically

The benefits outlined above are not automatic or universal. The specific benefits or impact will vary, depending on the focus, scope, and quality of a particular service or service-learning experience. And, based on other research, it is likely that the benefits are stronger (particularly for young people) for service-learning than for volunteering or community service. Thus, integrating core elements of effective service-learning is key to reaping these and other benefits . Among these core elements of effective practice are the following themes:

  • Young people have active and meaningful leadership roles;
  • The program is guided by clear and intentional learning and development goals;
  • Active, intentional, and structured reflection is integral to the program;
  • Young people are involved across time (at least 20 hours across several months); and
  • The service projects meet real community needs and priorities.

Conclusion

Community-based service-learning does not receive the kind of public attention that service-learning receives in education. Yet it offers significant benefits to society, to young people, and to participating institutions. Lawrence Neil Bailis and colleagues (2005) write:

Schools are not the only institutions that educate our young people, and community-based organizations can be far more than the 'stage' that schools use to deliver the service-learning programs that they develop. Kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade schooling is only one format for 'education' where young people gain the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and aspirations they will need to become successful adults.


*These findings were the result of a study by Eugene C. Roehlkepartain for Search Institute in December 2007.