Capacity-Building Projects

Strategy  •  Background  •  Next Steps  •  Available Resources


Bonner Programs strive to have deep, reciprocal relationships with their community partners that provide a spectrum of opportunities for volunteers at all levels.  While most of campus outreach takes the form of direct client service, with proper education, training, and support, students can also help meet the capacity-building needs of the local community partners.  

We have focused these opportunities to five broad areas, though there are may other possibilities:

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Volunteer Management: coordinating/managing service program, volunteer recruitment

Training and Program Development: coordinating programs, developing new programs, writing training manuals, organizing training workshops

Fundraising: organizing events, identifying grant and funding sources, writing grants

Communications: website and social media development, coordinating meetings, and online networking support

Research: conducting community-based research, policy research

We encourage campuses to identify capacity-building project opportunities with direct service providers, collaboratives, and advocacy groups.  We have learned that direct service providers generally request assistance in the order of the five areas listed above (i.e. beginning with volunteer management), while collaboratives prioritize in the reverse order (i.e., beginning with research and then moving up the list).  The reasons for this are clear when you take into consideration the primary activities of each type of organization:  service providers have on-going programs that need volunteer assistance to deliver, while collaboratives are organized to better understand an issue and seek strategies for addressing gaps or inefficiencies through systemic change.

Connection to Community Impact

Capacity-building projects assist participating organization operations in one of three ways:

Efficiency/Efficacy: Improved outcomes with the same level of resources or improved or consistent quality of services with fewer resources;

Scale/Reach: Number of new people served, new populations served, and/or new or expanded services;

Leverage: Additional resources or assets garnered through capacity-building activities such as funding, volunteers, in-kind support, and partnerships. 

Adding capacity-building projects to the campus-community partnerships expands and helps solidify a long-term, multi-faceted relationship—with connections to many resources that the campus can mobilize.

Connection to Campus & student Impact

Capacity-building projects are ideally suited for integration with academic courses and majors as they utilize the skills and knowledge students are developing through their academic training.  

As we learned with introducing community-based research as a form of service-learning, capacity-building projects are an attractive option for faculty looking for ways to engage students in more advanced forms of real world service and learning.

And, as with all experiential or high impact learning, student learning is enhanced through the practice of tackling real-world, community-defined capacity-building projects.

Connection to Higher Education Impact

Capacity-building projects addressing pressing organizational and programmatic needs of our community partner provides an important approach for connecting to the public mission of higher education.  They provide tangible proof that students, faculty, and staff who are civically engaged have valuable contributions to make while also preparing the next generation of civic leaders. 


In 2010, the Bonner Foundation launched our first VISTA program which focused on leveraging higher education to support the capacity building needs of local, regional, and statewide anti-poverty groups in New Jersey.  This NJ-based program has gone through several phases that have and continue to inform our national Bonner Network strategies.


One of the goals with our initial VISTA program was to to develop local community-information hubs.  This approach built on our experience with the Trenton Center for Community-Campus Partnerships and a similar network in Washington, DC (both funded through our second 2000-03 Learn & Serve grant).  Our initial approach utilized a database-driven website to power the local PolicyOptions news and information bureaus staffed by student interns.  This proved challenging in a number of ways, so we are now in the early stages of modifying our wiki-based platform to share a) issue briefs (which we’ve had in place since 2007), b) a directory of organizations, c) links to information sources, and d) a meetings calendar. 

Another major goal has been to identify and partner with local and regional collaboratives.  As we’ve gained experience in this area over the last few years, we’ve linked to or begun to develop tools and resources to help link campus efforts by students and faculty to meet the capacity building needs of these collaboratives. 

Click    to view the Capacity-Building Opportunities Form.

Click to view the Capacity-Building Opportunities Form.

For instance, we created a general Capacity-Building Opportunities Form to support initial brainstorming with community partners.  We are now working on a Capacity-Building Project Request Profile to be used in recruiting faculty and students to take on the projects.  We then anticipate creating a generic project management plan tool of some sort.  In addition, we found that there are four types of collaboratives, each with a different goal and structure:  cooperate, coordinate, collaborate, collective impact.  We then adapted a self-assessment instrument that can help assess areas of managing the collaborative that need improving. 

In 2013, we took these ideas and the tools and began making a concerted effort to push schools in the national Bonner network to engage in a broader range of capacity-building projects with community partners, and to expand their community partnerships beyond service providers to include collaboratives of various shapes and sizes.  

Next Steps

We are seeking to expand the number of capacity-building projects taken on by Bonners and other students.  For instance, capacity-building projects are the primary option we are encouraging for Junior/Senior Capstone Projects.

However, it has become clear that there’s a big difference between placing students in a direct service role and working with a community partner to develop capacity building projects that students can complete alone or in a team in a semester or school year or summer.  

Part of this is because in placing students to provide direct community service, the host agency generally does the training and supervision of the student volunteers which they have expertise in.  By contrast, capacity building projects are almost by definition ones where the community partner agency does not have the expertise or perhaps the time or manpower to do on their own, thus relying upon the campus to bring their talents and resources to bear.

We’ve learned how to do this for community-based research (CBR) and PolicyOptions Issue Brief projects, so we understand some of the challenges in working with small groups of students in individual courses or internships with a CBR focus.  

But, we recognize that there are substantially different challenges to overcome if we are to increase substantially the number of capacity-building projects by students as part of a course or internship or capstone experience.

We are learning from models for organizing teams of students to do high level capacity building projects that are tied to the academic courses and internships.  Siena College’s Community Policy Institute is one model. 

We will be looking for other higher education models for delivering skilled capacity-building service, such as pro-bono legal aid by law school students.  These models suggest that a key strategy is to form small, self-sustaining teams (with faculty supervision) focused on specific capacity-building areas such as survey research, communications, technology, and fundraising, to name a few.

To do this, campus community engagement center may need to link up with a local non-profit support center or perhaps start one to serve as an intermediary between community-based organizations and their college or university.  

Available Resources

The Bonner Resource Wiki has a section on Building and Maintaining Community Partnerships and another on Managing Student Placements, each with guides, campus examples, and documents to download.