This study investigated the role of the community partner to understand how leadership principles intersect with their motivations and views of risks and challenges associated with service-learning collaboration. In this research we specifically focus on service-learning, which engages students with community needs and has the additional characteristics of being a structured, competency-based, credit-bearing experience (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996). As opposed to exploring wider community initiatives, such as place-based community engagement (Yamamura & Koth, 2018), this study’s concentration on service-learning course partnerships provides a focused exploration of community partners’ leadership knowledge, attitudes, and skills.

In the edited volume The Unheard Voices, Stoecker, Tryon and Hilgendorf (2009) explored the unevenness in service-learning relationships and provided suggestions for improving equity and sustainability. The Unheard Voices refocused attention on equality and reciprocity for community partners in the service-learning dynamic. With increased focus on reciprocal relationships, there has been more exploration of the various benefits and motivations for community partners. For example, partners are often motivated by capacity building opportunities for their organizations (Bell & Carlson, 2009; Hogan, Tynan, Covill, Kilmer, & Cook, 2017) that enable reallocation of limited resources to other projects (Blouin & Perry, 2009). Extending these ideas, Bell and Carlson (2009) identified four additional motivations for partners to engage in service-learning projects: to teach students about their core mission and expose them to careers in the nonprofit sector; to cultivate future employees, volunteers, and donors; to assist with projects that require unique skills and knowledge; and to strengthen relationships with colleges and universities.

These motivations have relationships at the center. Blouin and Perry (2009), Sandy and Holland (2006) and Tryon, Hilgendorf and Scott (2009) state that effective service-learning partnerships are grounded in relationships. O’Flynn (2007) specifically recognized that nonprofit organizations value the importance of relationships to support their mission and project goals, maintain donor and volunteer pools, and promote trust with their clients. Furthermore, Tryon et al. (2009) argue that positive and dynamic relationships are needed for success of service-learning partnerships.

A philosophy of shared leadership is essential to strengthen relationships and ensure overall functioning of the project. The impact of service-learning on student and instructor leadership development has been recognized in service-learning pedagogy (Foli, Braswell, Kirkpatrick, & Lim, 2014; Hartman, 2016; Hogan et al., 2017; Scharff, 2009; Seemiller, 2016; Wagner & Mathison, 2015; Wurr & Hamilton, 2012). While partners have called for shared leadership in the service-learning process (Sandy & Holland, 2006), there has been less focus on community partners’ knowledge, attitudes and skills that position them as leaders within the partnerships. Lear and Sánchez (2013) have provided some exploration of partners’ leadership in the context of behavior and activity.

Research that specifically focuses on the voices of community partners is most advantageous for elucidating their knowledge, attitudes and skills. By drawing from partners’ own thoughts and experiences, deeper insights can be mined about growing and sustaining partnerships (Blouin & Perry, 2009; Dorado & Gillis, 2004; Sandy & Holland, 2006; Stoecker et al., 2009; Tinkler, Tinkler, Hausman, & Strauss, 2014). In line with this method that empowers the voices of community partners, the present study uses the strategy of gathering data from partners themselves.

To directly address community partners’ own perceptions and applications of their roles as leaders in the service-learning collaboration, we argue that Komives, Lucas, and McMahon’s (2013) Relational Leadership Model can be used to understand and enhance leadership within service-learning partnerships. The Relational Leadership Model is a good fit for application in service-learning because it is grounded in the importance of relationships among people to achieve positive change; a goal that mirrors that of the service-learning. Similar to Seemiller’s competencies (2016), the Relational Leadership Model focuses on specific leadership proficiencies: knowing, being, and doing. These three competencies provide a foundation for understanding and implementing leadership and are crucial for a successful service collaboration (Snook, Nohria, & Khurana, 2011). Knowing focuses on knowledge and understanding. It involves a leader seeking and using knowledge to create an awareness of one’s self, of others, and of the organization(s). A knowing leader understands and places value upon others’ experiences and perspectives. The second competency is being which involves the leader actualizing ethical behavior and inclusivity. Being centers on attitudes and perspectives. It involves the leader valuing others’ viewpoints and contributions and committing to one’s own role in social responsibility. The third competency is doing which focuses on skills. It encompasses the leader enacting social responsibility and civic engagement. The leader shapes and follows through on goals, collaborates with others, reflects, and participates in giving and receiving feedback.

Beyond these three competencies, the Relational Leadership Model emphasizes five key overlapping components necessary for leadership success: purpose, process, ethics, inclusiveness, and empowerment. First, a purposeful leader seeks to develop a clear mission and vision for the organization, or in this case, the partnership. This requires committing one’s self to the partnership, encouraging others to see the purpose, and developing an awareness of compatibility between organizations. Second, a leader who is process-oriented, understands and implements mechanisms for group structure and goal attainment. This requires using and supporting communication to foster process development and implementation. Third, a leader who is ethical embraces values and expectations that are founded on moral principles to guide the collaboration. Ethical leaders will commit to socially responsible issues. Fourth, a leader who is inclusive embraces the involvement of many constituents, valuing their ideas and participation. This may require the complex task of considering various ways that group constituents may be compatible or incompatible. Finally, an empowering leader encourages self-empowerment in others and creates collaborative environments that encourage creativity and exploration. These leaders will use strategic and positive communication to foster sharing of power and confidence in others. Similarly, these five interwoven components of the Relational Leadership Model align with the principles of service-learning success outlined by Hidayat, Pratsch, and Stoeker (2009): commitment to the organization’s goals and the service-learning project, purposeful communication with the instructor and students, and compatibility of the project and expectations.

The purpose of this study was to explore the Relational Leadership Model in the context of the community partners’ collaboration with the course instructor and the students. The project aimed to identify ways that community partners engage in leadership to manage perceived risks and challenges, implement strategies to ensure success of the project, and to develop and maintain the motivation to continue with service-learning. Specifically, we investigated the degree to which community partners demonstrate the five competencies of the Relational Leadership Model (Komives et al., 2013). The findings from this study can be used to understand the community partners’ leadership knowledge, attitudes and skills that enhance the collaboration and can promote sustainability of service-learning partnerships with a focus on expanding views of their roles as co-leaders in the partnerships.


Community Partners

The two partnerships at the core of this study represent different areas of community need that have involved collaboration with service-learning classes at a local private liberal arts university. One community partner manages a locally-based community garden that has a specific focus on supporting environmental justice by providing healthy foods to community members living in a food desert. The garden is situated within five miles of the university. The garden is located on the property of a nature center, and it is mainly overseen by a local church. This community-university partnership was initiated through a connection made by a biology professor who had experience in service-learning projects that involved starting seedlings for the community garden.

Currently, there are two courses that have a sustained service relationship with the garden. The first course is Green Societies. It is an upper division, required course for sustainability majors and an elective for sociology and geography majors. The Green Societies course focuses on human interaction with the environment, environmental theory, policy, and sustainable food systems. The service-learning project requires students to plant, tend, and harvest foods throughout the spring semester. The second service-learning class is Introductory Sociology. This course meets the university’s core requirement for Social Sciences and is taken by incoming and second-year students in the fall semester. The partnership between the university and the community garden has existed for six years.

The second community partnership is with a national dropout prevention program that works with at-risk youth affected by childhood poverty and struggling with academic performance. The local branch of the dropout prevention program connects adult mentors with 6,000 students from more than 30 local high schools. The program specifically aims to assist with literacy development and mentoring of at-risk youth. This community partnership was also initiated by a professor. The professor had previous career experience managing juvenile programs at the State Attorney’s Office and a full-service youth program. This experience put her in contact with the dropout prevention organization in this study. The partnership was a natural fit as the program director is also an alumnus of the university.

The community organization partners with Media and Crime which is an elective class offered in the fall semester for students who major in sociology or minor in criminal justice. Most Media and Crime students are sophomores or upper level students with varying amounts of interest in mentoring, at-risk youth, educational success, and social inequality. The course challenges students to explore media portrayals of at-risk youth and the impact on public perception and policy. The university students serve as adult mentors to middle and high school students who are identified as at-risk for school absence, dropping out of school, or not earning enough high school credits. To ensure safety for the mentees, all university student mentors go through a background screening. To prepare university students for the mentoring experience, early in the semester, the organization sends key staff to the classroom to educate mentors on expectations. This service-learning partnership has been in place for seven years.


Community partners were identified from the university’s Service-Learning Center database on partnerships from academic years 2015–16, 2016–17, and 2017–18. There were four interview participants, two from each collaborative partnership. Community partner participants in the sample had more than two years of active and ongoing roles in service-learning projects with respect to planning, management, or oversight. Each pair of interviewees included an organizational director and a site manager who worked directly with the undergraduate students. The director of the garden was part of the Community Garden Steering Committee who ensure that the proposed service-learning projects fit with existing organizational needs and that resources exist to support the collaboration. The garden manager implemented the garden and was responsible for developing and overseeing the service-learning project with the faculty member of Green Societies and Introductory Sociology. She directly oversaw the students’ volunteer shifts each week. To supplement course lessons, the garden manager would talk informally with the students about environment and social justice theories relevant to the project. The director of the mentor program was responsible for more than 30 site managers who serve three mentor programs. The director identified two middle schools and one high school (each within five miles of the university) to partner with the Media and Crime service-learning course. The participating students lived in economically depressed households and typically with a single parent. The site manager was responsible for matching approximately 25 college mentors with high school student mentees based on shared interests and backgrounds, and for managing daily logistics of the project. Her case load of more than 80 students would include those outside of the service-learning partnership.

Data Collection and Analysis

Each prospective interviewee received an initial email invitation to participate with a request to respond within fourteen days. In compliance with the university’s Instructional Review Board requirements, participants were provided a consent form prior to the interview. Participants were interviewed individually for approximately 45–60 minutes at either the partner’s workplace or at the university. During the interview, one interviewer asked questions and the other took notes. All interviews were recorded using a voice recorder app on a laptop. In these semi-structured, face-to-face interviews, interviewees were asked to elaborate upon a list of prompts that were developed by Dorado and Giles (2004) (See Appendix A). The specific questions encourage the partners to reflect on knowledge (knowing), attitudes (being), and skills (doing). At the onset of the session, interviewees were encouraged to provide details or specific examples as they responded to the prompts.

Data were analyzed using a hybrid process of deductive and inductive template analysis. First, drawing from Crabtree and Miller’s (1999) deductive a priori template of codes approach, codes were developed using the Relational Leadership Model concept table from Komives et al. (2013) (See Appendix B). This allowed coding of data regarding partnership experience and motivation using Relational Leadership Model themes. Both researchers participated in the data organization and interpretation to ensure two perspectives for verification. The data were organized according to leadership competency themes (knowing, being, doing) that were further subdivided by Relational Leadership Model components (purposeful, process-oriented, inclusiveness, ethical, and empowering). As part of the interpretive process, connections and overlap between component areas were identified and explained. Second, using an inductive approach, the data were used to generate a new perspective on the leadership role of the community partner.


The partners interviewed in this study had been involved in comparable projects prior to the service-learning courses, and therefore had experience with leadership proficiencies of knowing, being, and doing (Komives et al., 2013; Snook et al., 2011). For example, the director of the mentor program and site manager had mentored high school students for a number of years. The director was a retired principal and former site manager for the mentor program. The site manager had mentored with the Big Brother and Big Sister Program, and the High School-Vystar Credit Union Branch Program. The director and manager of the community garden had overseen volunteers, from elementary through high school and the Armed Forces, but previous to the collaborations with the university, had not worked with college-age students. Participants’ responses focused on the five core relational leadership components: ethical, inclusive, purposeful, empowering, and process-oriented (Komives et al., 2013).

Core Leadership Component: Ethical

Partners demonstrated being with their commitment to socially responsible behavior which is a key component of ethical leadership. The garden manager also recognized the importance of her own ethical behavior in the partnership. She focused on fulfilling the commitment to the service project, “Making sure we hold up our end of the bargain. Making sure we had enough work for the students to do and being here when we said we’d be here.”

All partners also demonstrated knowing through their knowledge and understanding of social justice. They mentioned the importance of each group members’ commitment to the partnerships. As an expert in food and social justice, with a graduate degree in environmental education, the garden manager shared, “I love that we have an opportunity to make a difference in a food desert….the food we’re growing has a direct effect on folks in the neighborhood that we’re in.” Knowing about the challenges experienced by the students in her case load, the mentor program site manager admitted, “I wanted to try to make a difference. I wanted to be that person for them (the youth) and so that carried over into the project.”

The partners also recognized the ethical importance of doing. They voiced concern regarding the commitment of the students and themselves in the partnership. When discussing challenges of collaboration, the garden director showed understanding of how college student volunteers are at a more independent stage in life that requires personal accountability, “There is not really any accountability to anybody except themselves.”

Core Leadership Component: Inclusive

The partners mentioned the importance of knowing and being inclusive as shared partners. The program site manager indicated that the success of the mentoring process was underpinned by taking the initiative to learn about the college student mentors. She admitted that she needed to, “understand what they’re going through… if you understand what they’re going through it helps smooth things over… it makes things run smooth.” This opened opportunity for her to create an atmosphere to support the mentors’ empowerment. The garden director appreciated the shared leadership quality of “open-mindedness” by the faculty member who was “collaborative and not pushing some sort of agenda but had a genuine drive to help the garden and also provide students with experiences.”

As a true demonstration of their own doing of leadership skills, the partners were willing to fully include these students by expanding the students’ roles within the community partner organizations. Through the years of the partnership, the garden director took a concerted effort to foster inclusivity with the student volunteers. He indicated that by the second time the service-learning project was offered, he had “developed ways to not only motivate but also to communicate” with the students. The mentor director indicated that the service-learning project “grows” into other opportunities, including internships. For example, he indicated, “we have had several students from the (faculty member’s) class to come to intern with us…. We give them mini caseloads and they check with (the students) every week.” The garden manager mentioned the addition of garden assistants into the process; these students were selected from the previous Green Societies class and included in new roles as onsite support for gardening activities for the Introductory Sociology class.

Core Leadership Component: Purposeful

The leadership theme of being purposeful was threaded through many of the participants’ responses; touching on their own leadership competencies of knowing, being, and doing. When considering the notable challenges and risks to collaboration, the partners spoke of knowing the shared purpose of the projects that contributed to the organizations’ goals.

The partners demonstrated a thoughtful focus on being by identifying shared goals with the students. The mentor site manager described how commitment to the purpose of the partnership was key, “the high school student wanted it (mentor project) to work as much as the college student… that the high school students loved hanging out with college students.” The garden director described a dynamic experience with purpose of the partnership. “My initial motivation, just to get everything out there, was to have a labor force to help us.” Over time, the garden director’s sense of shared purpose grew into involving students in social justice. “…helping them understand how the project is related to community…that the renovated garden will ultimately help people in need of food….there is a common goal that is important to them [the students].”

The garden manager demonstrated doing with the student partners and the partnership, in general. She appreciated the opportunity “to take a deeper dive with the [Green Societies] students… to bounce around ideas.” In her experience, she demonstrated leadership skills with students through imparting purpose and being inclusive even though garden students have a range of gardening knowledge; some more and some less. When asked about possible risks that the garden manager considered before entering into the partnership, the garden manager responded, “It was definitely a concern for me that the time was valuable for them [the students] that they spent here.” She reinforced her concern about the students seeing and sharing in the purpose of the service. Because of different student volunteer shift schedules, “they don’t necessarily see something as it grows, as it changes.” It was also a concern to her and the Garden Steering Committee that, “we could uphold our end that the food would be delivered that the students grew, that it wouldn’t die on the vine…that they [the students] could see the whole thing through.”

Similarly, the mentor partners show evidence of doing to support the goals of the project and organization. In particular, the mentor director was purposeful in the matching of student mentors and mentees. The site manager reported:

I had a match this year that when the [university] student sat down with me after she met her mentee, she said to me, ‘Oh my gosh how did you know (that the match was a good fit)? …’ The high school student had lost her mother, but the college student had lost her grandmother who was like a mom to her.

The mentor director reinforced the success of the process, “90% of the matches were successful.”

Core Leadership Component: Empowering

The partners supported knowing and being to share empowerment and amplify the goals of the projects. The garden manager created an empowering environment by looking at the opportunity and designing a space that encouraged students to share ideas about production methods and even types of plants to grow. The mentor site manager also indicated that the organization empowers the mentor-mentee partners to select their own meeting locations on campus. “I usually give them options [for meetings]. If they want to sit outside, they can sit outside, or if they want to go to the library. They can go where they want to go.” The site manager empowers the mentee-mentors to make a choice, and this small form of empowerment strengthens the mentee’s awareness of the benefits of the partnership, “Some of the high school kids think it’s so cool to be sitting outside on campus in the middle of the day with their college person next to them.”

As evidence of doing, the garden director developed motivations to fully engage the students in the group and empowered them to embrace their own unique ideas and value as a member of the garden partnership. To achieve this, the garden manager assumed a more experimental approach to growing plants so students would reframe challenges with production levels as learning experiences versus failures:

Nine times out of ten, everything they [sic] grow is wonderful, and people can’t wait to get it …. For some of them with no experiences in it [gardening], it is really helpful that I kind of have an outlook that well, you know, it’s a bit of an experiment and sometimes we’ll plant something that might not grow and we can go back and kind of hypothesize why it didn’t work and maybe make changes in the future and so I think my attitude towards them coming has been helpful.

The mentor director and site manager were also skilled in doing through empowering the project partners. In working with the college students, they welcomed ideas that would enhance mentoring experiences and relationships between mentor and mentee. They supported the students in pursuing their creative approaches even if it required extra efforts. The mentor manager said:

There were a couple situations where a [university] mentor wanted to bring her mentee to a dance class. We said ‘wait, you’re not supposed to meet off campus where you pick them up.’ So we arranged for the parent to drop the student off… So she [mentor] was able to expose the young girl to a nice dance studio.

The director cited other times that the organization helped facilitate mentees who were interested in sports or attending football games.

Core Leadership Component: Process-oriented

Partners also identified challenges and risks associated with the process of the service-learning project. As evidence of knowing and being the partner leaders recognized that training was important to ensuring students were able to succeed. With the garden project, the on-site orientation was designed to inform the undergraduate students about safety and health considerations related to working in the garden. Early in the semester, the director of the mentor program and the site supervisors came to the university classroom and educated the college students regarding behavior, punctuality, communication, and expectations as a mentor this includes discussing the complex issue of boundaries between social media accounts of mentors and mentees. Even with the orientation as a key part of the project process, occasionally a college student volunteer would not meet the organization’s expectations. For instance, a mentor would text a mentee directly or show up at an unscheduled hour and the faculty member and site manager would need to remind the mentor of the rules and regulations. Should the college mentor be absent or late, then the site manager would need to get permission from a teacher to excuse the mentee from class, which would inconvenience the teacher and disrupt the class. The garden manager expressed similar concerns. A few students would arrive late to the garden or leave early from their shifts. Both managers indicated that the faculty member associated with the project was responsive and quickly addressed their issues by speaking with the students. While the process with the student was challenging, the process with the faculty member helped to mitigate the issue.

With respect to doing, the success of the project was underpinned by communication and planning among the different partners: community partners, faculty, staff, and students. For example, partners from both organizations mentioned scheduling challenges and expressed that these hurdles were overcome by developing a shared process to successfully coordinate and communicate with the faculty member prior to and throughout the semester. The garden director noted, “the biggest thing that can kill a volunteer project is lack of communication. I feel that there was always a good line of communication. I feel that was a success.” The faculty member for Green Societies and Introductory Sociology confirmed with the garden manager the daily and weekly schedules of volunteers and timeline of deliverables. The manager also appreciated the faculty member’s organization, sharing:

[to] plan far out is really helpful… structure is one of the things that gardens, in general, have a hard time with and is why they do not work well… having a loosey-goosey structure with a partner, it actually doesn’t work. So you guys being really on top of it and by having set things that need to be done and in place is actually really helpful for us.

Additionally, the mentor director would collaborate with the faculty members on a mutually-satisfactory schedule and helped to ensure timely submission of paperwork such as background check forms. To underscore the development and conclusion of the semester-project, student mentees were invited to the university campus for a tour and to have lunch with their mentors. For some mentees, their mentors continue to visit them after the conclusion of the semester.


By applying the Relational Leadership Model to the partners’ perspectives and strategies, this study showed that partners demonstrate leadership competencies of knowing, being and doing while participating intimately in key leadership components of creating purpose, designing and carrying out process, maintaining ethics, ensuring inclusivity, and facilitating empowerment. These findings suggest that using the framework of leadership to understand community partners’ activities and roles may greatly impact the overall approach towards service-learning partnerships.

Our study extends discussion of process-building to highlight community partners’ contributions towards service-learning processes. Regardless of administrative roles, the partners in this study indicated that project success was a function of initial investment in schedule development, committing to project goals, and keeping channels of communication open. This reinforces the critical nature of being an active participant in communication to clarify expectations and project limitations (Hidayat et al., 2009), demonstrating that the partners’ own attention to process is a leadership asset in building and sustaining the partnership itself.

This study also expands the existing conversation about empowerment in service-learning and the critical role of leaders empowering others. Community partners have a clear interest in sharing leadership and deepening connections with faculty partners and institutions (Sandy & Holland, 2006; Stoecker et al., 2009). The partners in this study encouraged the students to fully participate, explore and experiment during their service-learning. The outcomes benefitted the partnerships through expanding the depth and scope of the service-learning projects.

With respect to inclusivity and facilitating purpose, successful service-learning includes partners in supporting the academic, social justice and project purposes (Blouin & Perry, 2009) and is attentive to the organization’s own mission and vision (Tinkler et al., 2014). This study restructures ideas regarding who supports purpose and inclusion in the service collaboration. The partners in this study actively created purpose and include the service learners. Furthermore, community partners recognized the importance of educating students in social responsibility, professionalism, cultural competency, communication, and other aspects relevant to the service-learning experience. The findings in this study mirror Mondloch’s statement, “They [the partners] are the gardeners growing student minds in fertile gardens” (2009, p. 145). In part, because of the expertise and enthusiasm of the partners in this project, the service-learning experiences were career changing for a number of the university students who indicated a burgeoning interest in social justice issues of food insecurity and education inequity.

The common thread of ethics was evident throughout the partners’ efforts. As leaders, the partners exhibited ethical attitudes and behaviors by grounding their own work in social justice to uplift at-risk youth, support food security and advocate for environmental sustainability. The partners exhibited personal passion for, and provided real-life examples of, social justice issues that shaped shared purpose for the service-learning group. Finally, the partners demonstrated ethical decision-making with a focus on fulfilling their partnership commitment.

At the core, this study demonstrates that community partner leaders place emphasis on relationships. Thus, the role and impact of the partner directly ties into Relational Leadership Model with a focus on the quality, types, and dynamics of the relationships (Uhl-Bien, 2011). Exploring the components of the Relational Leadership Model allows a more guided understanding of community partners’ leadership skills and contributions. By looking at their role in interpersonal relationships, it brings to light community partners’ existing leadership contributions and reinforces their active leadership positions, and can potentially reframe student and faculty perspectives of the community partners. Using the lens of leadership, can provide stronger validation for the partners’ existing contributions and expand opportunities for their fuller contributions to sustainable and reciprocal partnerships.

Limitations and Future Research

While this study focused on longstanding service-learning partnerships, the interview sample represented a small number of partner leaders. To enhance the understanding of partners as co-leaders, future scholarship may explore a wider range of partners, representing greater variety of project types and partnership formats; including community based participatory action research and placed based community engagement. Other projects may also directly apply the Relational Leadership Model in the partnership planning process, and life cycle, to determine the benefits of a cohesive relational leadership approach.


With its grounding in relationships and aim to attain positive change through social justice transformation, the Relational Leadership Model is a useful framework for highlighting and understanding the leadership contributions of service-learning partnerships. By applying the Relational Leadership Model to interpret partners’ proficiencies of knowing, being and doing, the partners’ leadership becomes clearer and provides a purposeful way to safeguard a project’s success (Bell & Smerdon, 2011). We suggest that applying the Relational Leadership Model framework illuminates the partners’ leadership knowledge, commitment, attitudes, and skills, and in doing so provides a new lens for understanding and enhancing the partners’ legitimate place as co-leaders in the collaboration.