The founding mission for the Bonner Program is to provide diverse low-income, under-represented, and first generation students with the opportunity to attend college, while engaging their talents and educations in building and supporting communities.

The Bonner Program has been a catalyst for student-led community transformation and social justice at every school in our national network, as described in this recruitment video for Stetson University’s Bonner Program.

In 1990, the Bonner Foundation launched the first Bonner Scholars Program in partnership with Berea College in Kentucky, also signaling a commitment to rural Appalachia. Unlike other national scholarship programs, the Bonner Program does not simply reward a students' past service; it challenges and supports students to continue that service throughout college.  As such, the program adopted the motto access to education, opportunity to serveas its guiding principle. 

The program has grown to become the largest privately-funded, service-based college scholarship program in the country.  Each year campuses in the Bonner Network recruit an incoming cohort of between five and 40 new students with high financial need (defined as Pell eligible) and an ethic for service.  In turn, these students receive four-years of financial aid support and an opportunity to participate in an intensive, developmental community engagement experience.  The Bonner Program model has proven to be a successful model for the enrollment, retention, and graduation of low-income, first generation, and diverse students. 

Beginning in 1997, the Bonner Leader Program was launched to replicate the model using other resources like Federal Work Study. Collectively, the Bonner Programs at more than 65 campuses nationwide now engage more than 3,000 students annually. 

Transformation Goals 

The Bonner Program is designed to transform not only the students who are directly supported by the program, but also the campus and community in which they serve and learn. The goals of the program are identified in four areas: student development, community involvement, campus engagement, and higher education.

For the Student:

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  • To provide access to a college education for students with high financial need.

  • To afford students the opportunity to enhance and use their abilities, talents, and leadership to serve others while in college.

  • To create a supportive community of students on campus whose common focus on community service gives them a sense of purpose and meaning.

For the Campus:

  • To help recruit and retain a diverse group of students who might not otherwise be able to attend college.

  • To challenge and support the college to create a culture of service where the stated mission of service is translated in such a way that every student, faculty, and staff is encouraged to serve.

  • To support a core group of student leaders to build and strengthen the organizations on campus that promote a culture of service.

  • To support a core group of faculty members and professional staff who link the work of community engagement to the life of the college, in both curricular and co-curricular ways.

Click to view profile of Bonner Leader Daron Holman, UNC-Chapel Hill Class of 2016. Also click to read UNC-Chapel Hill's 26-page, five-year report celebrates the 2011-16 start-up years of their Bonner Leader Program and celebrates the graduation of their founding class.

For the Community:

  • To channel the energies of college students, faculty, and staff to continue to improve and expand upon the quality and nature of services offered to the community.

  • To break down the barriers between town and gown leading to improved communication and greater collaboration between the two.

For Higher Education:

  • To serve as a successful model to other colleges and universities who are interested in starting their own community service scholarship program.

  • To serve as a successful model for catalyzing and sustaining community engagement and public scholarship, including by students and faculty, in ways that build the capacity of communities.

  • To form a consortium of diverse higher education institutions which share a common commitment to service.

  • To provide leadership to a nation searching for ways to value and include young people in meaningful acts of citizenship.

See section on Impact for a more detailed description of these goals, strategies, and impact of the Bonner Program on students, communities, campuses, and higher education.

Integrated Approach

The Bonner Program rests on a number of developmental models, including for students, partnerships, and even faculty engagement. At the risk of oversimplifying things, the chart below provides a framework that explains how we understand campus community engagement, how it has evolved over the years, and where we find our next challenges and opportunities, and why we believe the Bonner Program can be a source of innovation to realize the vision for community-campus engagement that is deep, pervasive, integrated, developmental, and guided by our Common Commitments for community building, civic engagement, social justice, diversity, international perspective, and spiritual exploration.

Bonner program goals, strategies & impact

This chart shows how the Bonner Program's developmental model for students spans a range of service partners, engagement roles, and academic structures. Click to enlarge image.

Under the Impact section of this website, we provide a more information on the Bonner Foundation's goals and the strategies and assessment of our progress to date related to students, communities, campuses, and higher education.

Here we want to emphasize that we see the goals and strategies for students, communities, and campuses and tightly linked and interdependent. 

For instance, the Bonner Program is built along a four-year developmental model for students which translates into a scaffolded set of expectations and experiences, both in the context of community service and engagement and within students' academic and co-curricular learning. At the core of this model is the opportunity for students to work intensively over each semester in the academic year, and often supplemented by full-time summer internships as well. A student can even stay with the same partner – typically a school, nonprofit organization, or government agency– over multiple years, taking on increased leadership, program, and management roles. Even when a student moves to different sites, s/he is expected to grow. Through intensive training, reflection, and advising, students develop and refine their "Community Learning Agreements" and roles each year. 

From the perspective of the community partner, this means that they can count on having dedicated direct service from trained and skilled individual and teams of student volunteers. These students can begin to lead other volunteers or coordinate programs. Over time, they can take on projects that build the capacity of the agency – developing or expanding programs, recruiting or managing other people, writing grants or raising funds, building websites or social media campaigns, doing marketing, planning and running events, and even doing needed community-based research and policy research. Other students may choose to take on social action campaigns to address policy issues. With the help of campus staff and faculty, any of these roles might be tied to academic study, coursework, and credit and lead to a community-engaged capstone project.

Additionally, from the perspective of the partner, a connection with a Bonner Program and/or campus community engagement center means that the agency might have a team of campus volunteers, including a mix of underclass and upperclass students, as well as a faculty partner. Hence, as depicted in the chart above, the community partners might have a few volunteers (freshmen and sophomores) engaging in direct client service, and coordinated by an experienced student volunteer. Other veteran students might be doing both direct service with clients and capacity building projects. Still others might be doing community-based research, policy research, or social action. Back on campus, this work might be linked to an entire department or to an interdisciplinary team of faculty and staff supported by the campus center. 

This structure thus provides an opportunity for innovation in the curriculum itself in ways that position the faculty and institution as long-term sustained collaborators with external partners. To support students to learn and successfully carry out capacity building, research, and social action projects, faculty may need to build this work into course assignments or academic pathways. This might involve the development of sequenced coursework (or independent study or theses). Faculty themselves might also link it to their research agendas and teaching, becoming engaged public scholars. In so doing, they can collaborate with partners to seek and secure grants and funding.

This vision for integrated community engagement, teaching, and learning is both a goal and strategy inherent in the Bonner Program model which the Bonner Foundation and network of schools is working to develop, share, and grow.