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.  

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We seek to expand the number of capacity-building projects taken on by Bonners and other students across Bonner Network campus. Towards the end, we have set the expectation that all Bonners will complete a capacity-building or social action project before they graduate.  Our long-term, campus-wide goal is that 20-25% of all students complete a community-engagement project before they graduate.

Capacity-building projects serve as a mechanism for deepening the reciprocal, long-term, multi-faceted relationships our schools have with their community partners. These community-identified projects leverage the many resources of the campus — intellectual, technical, financial, space, prestige — providing much needed assistance to partners and learning opportunities for students seeking to address complex issues in the real world.

At the same time, these community-engaged projects allow students to work individually or in teams to integrate their academics, civic experiences, and personal identity to help build the capacity of a community partner and to work on addressing an issue that is important to them.

  • 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 Initiatives

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 Initiatives

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 Initiatives

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 began making a concerted effort to encourage 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

Our campus support continues to focus on both sides of the community-campus partnership.  On the community partner side, we continue to identify successful approaches for campus to work with community partners to identify and develop capacity-building project opportunities.  This is a new and more complex process for both campus and community partner staff who are used to placing students in direct client support roles (e.g., tutoring, serving at the soup kitchen, etc.). In this process, we are encouraging campuses to expand their community partnerships to include collaboratives and advocacy groups (e.g., the Trenton Alliance to End Homelessness) which are underrepresented organizations in our work. 

At the same time, we are helping campuses expand their internal infrastructure so they can support higher levels of project-based community outreach.  These include:

  • The creation of academic community-engagement pathways that incorporate capacity building projects. This is the primary goal of the Community-Engaged Learning Initiative (CEL).

  • Developing pro-bono “consulting corps” tied to academic disciplines that train and support student teams to take on projects that require specific skills and knowledge (e.g., policy research, survey research, marketing communications, technology, non-profit management).

We are also working with schools to develop the tools and processes to a) gather data on their capacity building projects and b) tell their community engagement story in annual reports, on their websites, and in news stories to celebrate and encourage community-campus projects.

We are making progress, as shown by this chart showing the 2017-18 capacity-building projects completed by Bonners.

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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.