College-on-call: How your local university or community college can help your non-profit or church

You don’t have to be a “university church” with a major university in your backyard for your church to  benefit from the resources of higher education.  With online classes, resource-rich websites and mobile faculty, the benefits to your church or non-profit might be just a click away.

Frequently, congregations and non-profits try to solve problems and look for answers using a familiar and well-worn set of assumptions and “we’ve done it this way” practices that limit new possibilities.  Chances are, there are other minds researching and thinking about these things in different contexts and disciplines in your area community college or university..  The church’s question, “What do younger generations think about this?” can be answered by undergraduate student surveys, sociological demographic research or business marketing faculty.  The non-profit’s question, “What services do older adults or impoverished populations really need in our community?”  could be explored with social work faculty or the university hospital staff.  The non-profit’s question, “What should be our strategic plan for partnering with our community?” could be deepened with a conversation with the extension office or the business college at the university.  The church’s question, “Who can take us to a deeper understanding of church history or the Bible?” can be answered by a faculty member from the history or religion department who is eager to share their wisdom and emerging research.

As a clergyperson who served a university church, I was constantly amazed at how eager university personnel was to partner with our congregation in imagining shared goals and projects.  With university partners, we envisioned and created an all-community learning event with Dr. Phyllis Tickle that brought together area churches, congregations, scholars and college students to explore a common topic of interest, “What is the future of faith?”  At another time, we invited a history department scholar, Dr. John Wimmer, who is one of the foremost experts on Francis Asbury (the American “founder” of our denomination) to speak at the church–little did we know he was in our backyard!   Later, our annual conference hired faculty from the university social work and finance departments to conduct a survey on economic issues facing clergy.  They could later use their research to publish and present in their own fields.  It was a win/win!

Now, as a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership at the university, I’ve seen many grad students searching for organizations to analyze, staff to interview, and programs to research.  Just offering your church or non-profit to programs such as these results in studies and conversations that are free to you and provide the benefit of outside expertise from emerging scholars.

Here are some other ways your regional college or university can be on-call for you:

  • Libraries–Take advantage of the space, the “vibe,” the scholarship, the resources that are right there for new learning and dreaming.
  • Free classes–Look around the library and the university websites and watch for speakers, topics or seminars that offer you everything from learning the bells and whistles of Excel spreadsheets to understanding more about politics in your region to discovering what makes Generation Z tick.
  • Student gathering “zones”–Want to know what younger generations are thinking and feeling?  Spend time with them.  Do your office work in a student union or cafeteria.  Observe and listen.  Engage and ask.  You’ll be amazed what you learn.
  • Journalism and marketing programs–Journalism and marketing students are always in need of projects, quick articles, and programs to be marketed.  This is free media for your church or non-profit.  Every time a journalism student asked for an interview or story about our university church, the only “ask” I had was that they send me the story or link so we could post it on our organization’s website.  It was much more professionally done than we could do, and the labor was free!.  
  • Faculty expertise–Strategic planning help needed?  How about new models of adult education or curriculum writing?  What about demographic studies of your county or social services?  There’s a faculty person at your regional higher education institution who is studying this stuff way more in depth that you have the time to study.  If you ask one faculty member, and they are not the right fit, they will be happy to guide to you another colleague.
  • Graduate student projects–Frequently, graduate students are not from the community where they attend university.  And yet, they are often required to find non-profit and service related organizations to analyze and survey.  Call the graduate studies program or service learning program at your regional college.  Ask for references of university programs who have projects related to your organization such as public health, social work, non-profit entrepreneurship, marketing, and educational leadership.  Again, this is a free service that often results in reports and studies that can really benefit your organization.
  • Interns, interns, interns–Often, churches will assume that the only interns they can seek out are pre-ministry candidates.  Not necessarily so.  Our university church had internships for marketing, communications, accounting, and education that drew students who wanted to be in a service organization…just happened to be a church.  Most Generation Z students (those born after 1996) want to (and need to) find paid internships in college.  While not absolutely necessary, there might be some funders in your organization who are eager to link young adults to your mission and contribute to their future success!

These days, national funding organizations are seeking grants which are rich in collaboration and cross-discipline partnerships.  Start practicing the power and potential of community collaboration by building a strong bridge between your regional higher education institution and your church or non-profit.  You’ll be amazed at the possibilities!

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