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Social Change Work on Campus vs. the 'Real World'

January 03, 2011

(Reilly Kiernan is midway through a year-long Project 55 Fellowship at the Foundation Center. In her last post, she wrote about the growing popularity of running for charity.)

Ivory_tower_small After four years at Princeton, I knew the community service and public interest scene on campus like the back of my hand. I knew which forms to fill out if I wanted to host an event, where to find funding, and the best way to promote initiatives so as to attract participants. But in the "real world" of nonprofit work, I'm just beginning to find my way.

On a college campus, students are embedded in an infrastructure designed to support their interest in doing good. And that has its pros and cons. On the one hand, students tend to be well supported with funds and organizational structure. On the other, their freedom is limited by certain institutional parameters. I remember, for example, a friend being frustrated by the fact that, because of a prohibition against support for lobbying activities, the university would not provide funds for his group to travel to Washington to attend events in support of passage of the DREAM Act. Still, Princeton did a good job of providing students with opportunities to innovate within such constraints.

There are many similarities between public interest work on a campus and in the "real world," but in my first five months at the Foundation Center I've been more impressed by the differences.

Here are three things I've noticed about the real world of nonprofit work:

1. It’s about what you accomplish, not what you've learned. In retrospect, I can see that many of the volunteer activities on college campuses served two equal purposes: To benefit the local community, and to teach students about a specific issue. This dynamic changes in the real world, where the focus largely shifts to serving a target constituency. (I would love to see a grant proposal that asks for a portion of the grant to be used to provide employees of a nonprofit with a deeper understanding of the issue they are working to address.)

2. Giving back requires more personal initiative. At school, I received weekly e-mails alerting me to on-campus events, the campus was plastered with calls to action, and I was never more than a few hundred yards from a physical office and an actual staff that could provide me with all the service-learning opportunities I desired. Instead of feeling isolated in an ivory tower, I often felt like I was bombarded with too many opportunities to do good. Since leaving school, however, I've noticed that if I want to volunteer or get involved in a cause, it requires a lot more effort on my part. No one is asking me out of the blue to help with something he/she is putting together. That's not to say that meaningful volunteer opportunities are hard to come by; you just need to be more proactive about identifying them. (Which is one reason I've come to love sites like Idealist.org, VolunteerMatch, and NYC Serv.)

3. It's about the money. I realize now how lucky we were at Princeton. Even when the downturn forced the university to scale back its support for service-learning activities, there was still enough money to fund a wide range of service events, on and off campus. In fact, thanks to a special referendum in my senior year, the student body reassigned their social fees to promote service on campus. In contrast, I've met a lot of nonprofit employees since I started working at the Foundation Center, and the need to raise funds is never far from their minds. Large or small, old or new, nonprofits are always in need of funding. And that's a huge difference.

Obviously, there are other differences between working for social change on campus and in the real world. These are just a few that have jumped out at me over the last five months or so. What about you? Any recent graduates out there with a different experience and/or take on the "real world" of nonprofits? We'd love to hear from you.... 

-- Reilly Kiernan


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Fantastic piece! One thing I have also realized is that I have be much more willing and prepared to face people who disagree with me. In college disagreements were present and supported, but polite and easily forgotten. Since working in the "real world" I am much more sensitive to: who is NOT participating in the conversation and the intensity of disagreements. In many issues people's livelihoods and values are at stake so investment in an issue goes beyond a required class or an internship where I could step away when it got too hard. I have to face issues of conflict and exclusion regularly.

Thanks so much for your comment, Alison! I think you touch on two things that I've definitely felt too.

1. On campus, everyone has the same level of experience and the same capacity to contribute to the debate/conversation. When you leave this environment, people can bring such diverse backgrounds in the sector to bear in discussions. These debates definitely can become more personal than academic. How do you deal with this? How have you been able to balance personal realtionships with standing up for your point of view? How can you make sure all voices are being heard?

2. The stakes are definitely higher in the "real world". Sure, there were times when I felt like getting an 'A' in my seminar about urban social change was incredibly important. But in retrospect, those stakes are nothing compared to working in a context where you can actually impact people's lives.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts,
Reilly Kiernan

I enjoyed your article Reilly. In my spare time I have started a company to bridge the gap between college students and the actual community of people that they are attending college in. I have felt for a long time that the gap of theory vs. real world was present, and now am trying to do my part, as a member of the community, to reach out to the college student demographic to pull the two sides closer together. What is your opinion on the biggest obstacle(s) to achieving this from the college student(s) side of things? Thank you in advance for your thoughts. All The Best!

Hi Brett,
Thanks so much for your comment! I was actually involved in a group of students at Princeton who were interested in this very gap!

I think that there are two major ways to fight this gap:
1. Through service-learning curricula, students can marry their academics to "real-world" problems. At Princeton, the Community-Based Learning Initiative provides this opportunity. Service learning is always a challenge to negotiate, though, because the language of academia is not always the same as the language of the nonprofit or social sector. It can be tricky to make sure that the ideal ends for both parties align.
2. Through extra-curricular activities, students can more fully embed themselves in the community. I think it's important that service opportunities in nearby communities include not only volunteer tasks, but also chances to learn about the issues facing the community and the people taking action.

In terms of challenges...the biggest one, i think, is time! College students are typically very busy! Even if they are passionate about the issues of a local community, time constraints can get in the way. There are some ways to combat this:

1. consider planning opportunities over breaks. Maybe an alternative spring break program?
2. Provide a regular schedule/menu of opportunities so people can plan ahead.

Good luck and thanks again for you comment,

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