20 Things I Wish I'd Known About Higher Education When I Worked in Nonprofits Part 1

February 9, 2015
Merith Weisman
Merith Weisman

This post is part 1 of 2 originally published by NPTalk in 2012.

Working in partnership with higher education can be quite rewarding. Through collaborating, both sectors can gain benefits for mission achievement through knowledge, funding, broadening constituent bases, etc. that neither can gain alone. When building a relationship, it's important to know about the other entity -- who they are, what they value, how they make decisions. This post explores the mysterious world of the American higher education system.

1. Higher education institutions evolved from the medieval monastic tradition, which were intentionally mysterious. The way modern higher education institutions function remains mysterious. The fact that I went to college did not automatically give me a roadmap to access their resources.

2. Nonprofits are just as mysterious to higher ed employees as they are to you. While some may have extensive experience working with nonprofits and others simply dismiss the work you're doing, perhaps most recognize the complexity and value of what you do. They may even be intimidated by you.

3. You have resources higher ed needs. Perhaps they have a goal of helping their graduates to be multiculturally competent and your organization works with diverse populations. Maybe they want their students to get real life experience in accounting or web design. Perhaps they are trying to change their public image by participating in more public service. Or maybe they have research funding to learn more about a local endangered species that lives in the wilderness preserve your organization manages. Whatever is happening locally, and whatever your mission, your creativity can lead to substantial outcomes.

4. There are many ways higher ed and nonprofits collaborate. For example, you may be interested in:

  • recruiting student volunteers from a community service program to staff the registration table at your next event
  • collaborating with staff from career services in the School of Business to recruit an intern to help you design a business plan
  • working with a faculty member in the Department of Sociology to develop a statistically valid survey tool and plan for data collection and analysis
  • applying for a large federally funded research grant that requires the support of a recognized academic authority
  • co-teaching a class on grantwriting
  • looking for a representative to serve on your Board
  • accessing a specialized database in the University library
  • attending an arts or athletic event
  • planning a campus tour for middle school students

Any of these could require identifying and getting to know different people in different offices who have different missions and strategies for accomplishing those missions.

5. Higher ed institutions are famous for having large bureaucracies with a maze of policies and procedures and tend to have complex interdepartmental politics, so connecting with the right person to collaborate with can be challenging. For example, if you have a higher ed collaborative research project that works with humans in any way (yes, even simply doing an online survey of adults), you will need approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB). This is to ensure there is a procedure in place to ensure that there are no violations to privacy or safety. There are other processes if your research works with animals or has an environmental impact. Your higher ed partner will be able to help you with this process, and will likely take it on themselves, but it is worth noting that it could slow your project down. It might seem like an unnecessary delay, so it's worth noting that these procedures developed due to some truly horrendous past practices and certainly help to protect the public good now. Some communities have even banded together to create their own "Community IRBs," and if your community has one, it can help protect your interests.

6. If all of this is starting to sound too messy, complicated, and overwhelming, don't worry! Often there's one person who has the job of helping you navigate all this. First thing's first -- find that person or office. Ask around with other nonprofit professionals or you could try googling it. Higher ed does not have consensus on that job title or office name, but some common names are Office or Center for Service-Learning, Community Engagement, Civic Engagement, Campus-Community Partnerships, Community Service and Public Service. Occasionally you might come across an Outreach office that is the connector. You will know you've found the place if their website emphasizes "reciprocity;" our higher ed way of saying that not only we and our students matter, but YOU matter.

7. If there's no office like that, there's always someone who can help you. This could be simply a an employee who cares or who has experience working with community organizations. Again, ask around for ideas and if you're still coming back empty, you can try looking at the Board lists of large agencies in your area to see if they have representation from the institution.

8. Not only don't these areas have consensus on what to call themselves, higher ed doesn't have consensus on what to call you. You will see language like "community partner," "agency,""organization," "community-based organizations," etc. No matter how we refer to you and the work you do, we're aware that there's quite a bit of our work that we can't do without you.

9. Perhaps understanding a bit about the history and structure will help you to navigate all this yourself. So, just like there are many kinds of nonprofit organizations with different missions, funding streams, and organizational structures, the over 7,000 US institutions are equally diverse. For example, is the institution you're working with public or private? For-profit, nonprofit and/or parochial? Are they a community college, tribal college, trade school, 4-year or doctorate granting? Do they prioritize teaching or research? How do your interests and mission align with theirs?

10. Some institutions are completely independent and some are part of a system or consortium. When they're part of a system, the person in charge of the system could be called a President or Chancellor and vice versa for the the person in charge of each individual institution. Generally, neither position can be compared to a high school principal. These roles have more in common with a mayor of a small town and an executive director of a large nonprofit in that they provide the public face for the institution and do a lot of fundraising. They are usually appointed by a Board of Trustees. There is a lot of variation in how these Boards are appointed, but it's worth looking into who serves on your partnering campus' Board. Perhaps there's someone you know.

Have you ever collaborated with a higher ed institution? What was your experience like? Did it benefit you? What did you learn from the experience? Would you partner again?