20 Things I Wish I'd Known About Higher Education When I Worked in Nonprofits Part 2

February 16, 2015
Merith Weisman
Merith Weisman

This post is part 2 of 2 originally published on NPTalk in 2012. Part 1 includes 1-10.Click here to see Part 1.

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.

11. There are differences between universities and colleges. Usually colleges are smaller, more specialized, are teaching focused and do not offer doctorates. Universities and colleges organize themselves into various combinations of colleges (The College of Pharmacy, the College of Arts and Sciences, etc.), made up of Schools (The School of Fine Arts, The School of Biological Sciences) made up of Departments and Programs (The Department of Music, The Department of Biochemistry, Womens Studies Program).

12. The person who is in charge of all the schools and/or colleges is the Chief Academic Officer. This person could also have a title like "Provost" and/or "Vice President of Academic Affairs." S/he reports to the President or Chancellor, depending on the way the institution defines those two roles. A Dean heads a School or College. Sometimes there could be a Dean of a non-academic area, for example, a Dean of Student Life, but a Provost always refers to the person in charge of academics. Academic departments are headed by department chairs. Programs are led by directors. Chairs and directors duties' vary as do the ways to determine who takes on the role. Responsibility could be circulated among department or program's members, or the person could be elected by the faculty in that department or program or appointed by a dean.

13. Not everything that happens within an institution happens in the academic setting. Even within institutions there are areas, often called "Divisions" that have different missions and funding streams. 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 an administrator 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.

14. Often the most sustainable way to work with a university is through the faculty so it's worth knowing a bit about what life is like for them. Tenured and tenure-track faculty have three jobs.


  • In institutions with a teaching focus, their primary job is teaching. Lecturers, also called instructors, adjuncts, part-time, and temporary, are hired to teach particular courses. They may or may not participate in the other two jobs. You could work with faculty to have the students in their class work with your organization.
  • Faculty in 4-year institutions and research focused universities often are required to participate in research, creative activity, and the publishing and presenting of that scholarship. Some faculty have scholarship as their primary or only job. You could work with faculty to address your research questions.
  • Faculty are also required to do service to the University, which usually looks like committee work. Some institutions require that faculty do community service in addition to their other three jobs. Your organization could recruit faculty to serve with you, either in a teaching or scholarship capacity, or on your Board, a committee, or as a pro bono consultant.


All of this means the faculty are not "off" in the summer but instead are focusing on one or two of their non-teaching roles. They're so busy that often the people who work at institutions don't know what their colleagues are doing. Even faculty in the same department may not know that they're both working with you!

15. Did you know that there are many employees of universities who are not faculty? Administrators and staff usually make up the majority of these employees. They do office work, behind the scenes tech support and accounting, policy making, and maintaining the physical spaces. They work in offices, recreation, housing, classrooms and labs. Sometimes they teach, do research, and serve on committees, so it can be pretty confusing to tell the faculty, staff, and administrators apart. However, their lives and pressures are quite different from the faculty, so if you plan to collaborate with them, taking the time to get to know them what those are will go a long way. One way to think about this is to think about how helpful it would be for you if they knew the difference between a Board Member, Executive Director, Volunteer Program Manager, and Programs staff member.

16. Never underestimate how much of a complication working with a university schedule can be. Deadlines are fast and hard. Semesters last about 3 1/2 months and quarters and trimesters are even shorter. Some summer and winter intersessions are four weeks and programs focused on professionals, such as executive MBA programs, often have intensive 2-week courses or weekend-only classes. While most institutions have a dominant schedule, there are always some courses that don't follow it. And administrators and most staff are on a 12-month schedule. In any case, there are ways to make that schedule be a benefit to you. Perhaps you have a project that can be broken down into smaller 3-month parts? Or perhaps you're an educational institution yourself and you follow a similar schedule?

17. While it may appear so, most higher ed institutions don't have tons of money. They have been facing the same downturn in tax revenue, grant funds, endowment returns, and philanthropy that the nonprofit sector has faced. They are also facing the same challenges of a massive generational transition as baby boomers retire. And like many nonprofits, they struggle with a disconnect between the way they see themselves and the way the public perceives them.

18. Like nonprofits, educational institutions are profoundly affected by the internet revolution. They know that "business as usual" is over and that the "sage on the stage" content delivery method of teaching is not the way of the future. And like many nonprofits, some people and institutions have embraced this and are using and pushing the limits of technology for their purposes. Of course, some are struggling with lack of knowledge and fear, and others are convinced that there's something special and valuable about the "college experience" that technology will never be able to deliver. The nonprofit sector and higher ed have much to share with each other as we move through this new world together.

19. Just as it's rare for nonprofits to lose their 501(c)3 status, it is rare for institutions to lose their accreditation. Standards are set by the US Department of Education and regional review boards work with campuses on a regular cycle to ensure that these are met. Preparing for this review is often an ongoing process and can be an opportunity to develop a strategy for partnering. Additionally, some academic disciplines have their own accreditation processes that allow them to award professional certifications, such as for medical professionals, social workers, and teachers, and/or serve as a benchmarking tool and honorary designation. Working on these accreditations is taken very seriously, so even when there's no concern of any challenges, preparing for accreditation visits tends to be an "all hands on deck" period. The stress level could be higher and your partnership may not get the same attention as during other times.

20. A great resource to learn more is "The Promise of Partnerships," a book for higher ed community partners. It includes practical tools such as tips, checklists, and best practices. You can purchase a copy here.

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?