Writing for Nonprofit Organizations: A Classroom without Walls. (On-Going Topics)
Filetti, Jean S., Academic Exchange Quarterly
This paper explores the importance of reciprocity in service-learning courses and how a course in grant writing at the undergraduate level successfully linked students with nonprofit organizations and engaged them in applying the grant writing instruction they received in the classroom to the efforts of the nonprofit organizations they served. Covering the development of this course and tracking the students' changing perceptions via their journal writings, this paper discusses ways in which students moved from questioning the relevance of service to envisioning themselves as catalysts for change, equipped with the tools to effect that change.
"Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down."
In the context of the poem "Mending Wall," the "something" that wants to bring down walls is nature, the cycle of freezing and thawing, the expansion and contraction of the land. On another level, it is Robert Frost, the poet, who doesn't like walls, demanding to know what he's "walling in or walling out." I, too, like Frost and those he represents, don't like walls-either those I can see and especially those I can't. But, they are there. They separate the "haves" from the "have-nots," those who are "in" from those who are "out," the powerful from the disenfranchised.
As university professors, we are called upon to address this divide. How do we equip our students to become responsible citizens committed to the common good? What exactly does it mean to be committed to the common good? How do we get our students to accept the challenges and risks of "real-world" learning and to understand that knowledge has "real-world" applications beyond one's chosen profession and individual goals to make money, buy things, and support oneself? How do we teach students what it means to be invested in and a part of a larger community? In short, how do we build classrooms without walls?
In the 1980s, many colleges began requiring community service as a way to build a responsible citizenship. In the 1990s, as community service became intertwined with classroom instruction, service-learning classes increasingly made their marks in university curriculum across the country. Then-President of Rutgers' University, Edward Bloustein, championed such courses as a "necessary component of the learning experiences which constitute a liberal education" (qtd. in Hensen & Sutliff, 1998, p. 191). In its broad sense, service learning is defined as a "course-based, credit-bearing educational experience in which students (a) participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and (b) reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility" (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999, p. 112).
To that end, service-learning experiences have moved students outside the classroom and into our nation's soup kitchens, rape crisis centers, and homeless shelters, giving them a first-hand basis from which to write about and discuss social issues. For Bruce Herzberg (1994) and others who have written on service-learning courses, such experiences should provide more than just first-hand exposure to social issues for students to study and write about. As Herzberg notes, such courses should make students "better citizens, citizens in the strongest sense of those who take responsibility for communal welfare" (1994, p. 317). According to Anne Ruggles Gere and Jennifer Sinor, service learning should "broaden students' perspectives from the exclusively personal toward ... [an understanding] that responsibility for social justice extends beyond individual acts of charity to comprehending the ways that social institutions affect our lives" (1997, p. 54).
Service learning, therefore, should not be a one-way street. As Robert G. Bringle and Julie A. Hatcher, directors of the Center for Public Service and Leadership at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, suggest "service learning classes [must] demonstrate reciprocity between the campus and the community, with each giving and receiving (1999, p. 180). Just as the communities the students serve become catalysts for academic reflection and as the volunteer experience fosters empathy and raises self and social awareness, the generally understaffed and overworked organizations receive the volunteer workers they need. Beyond reflective journals and essays produced for the university professor, many students edit and write correspondence, manuals, and publicity materials, such as, brochures and flyers for the organizations. We also know that many students who take service-learning classes continue on as volunteers, assuming a larger and even lifetime commitment to civic responsibility.
I like the idea of reciprocity. Therefore, when designing an upper-level technical writing course in grant writing, I focused on the following goals:
* To build a partnership, reciprocal in nature, between university students and community service organizations. * To have students' writing further the goals of the organization. * To equip students with the tools and knowledge that would enable them to use writing as a vehicle for lasting social change.
Thus, English 355 became not just a course in grant writing, but a course in grant writing for nonprofit organizations. I particularly wanted to move my students beyond the classroom walls and link them with agencies serving the needs of the community. It was important to me that students would write real grants, to real sources of funding, to address real needs. I wanted my students to see that writing (albeit a specific type of writing) can bring critical funding to a community, linking the "haves" (public and private sector sources of money) with the "have-nots."
The first week of class, however, reminded me how grounded my students were in their own personal worlds, how motivated students are by the "`personal' rather than any broader social or political commitment" (Gere & Sinor, 1997, p. 54). As I introduced the various nonprofits that eagerly awaited them and the meaningful work they were about to undertake, one student declared that she couldn't work with young people. "Okay," I said; "How about the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program?" Then she declared that she didn't want to work with people at all. When I mentioned the SPCA, she wasn't quite sure about dogs and cats either. One student wondered what kind of work she would have to do as a volunteer. This was not an unreasonable question, and I assured her that her mentor at the nonprofit organization would work with her schedule and offer her options. To this she responded, "Well, I won't do any manual labor." In the back of my mind, I made a mental note not to couple her with Habitat for Humanity.
As with all service-learning courses, I learned about my students' transportation problems and philosophical beliefs. One student, for example, immediately declared herself a member of PETA and wanted to know why there were not any "no-kill" animal shelters on the list. I heard about health problems and, ironically, one student said he couldn't do volunteer work for PADDA (People with Attention Deficit Disorders Association) because he, himself, had an attention deficit disorder. At last, though, by the end of week two, all students were placed in a nonprofit organization and, I believe, content with their assignments.
During week three, students began to fulfill their community service hours, which were designed to expose them to the programs run by the nonprofit organizations. This, too, was not an easy task. To work at a shelter for abused children, one student had to be fingerprinted and undergo a background check. She also had to sign a letter of confidentiality agreeing not to disclose the shelter's location. Another student had to take a training course in safe food handling prior to serving food in a soup kitchen. Nor was the volunteer work always pleasant. Dog cages at the SPCA had to be cleaned; sick and unwanted animals euthanized. Boxes and boxes of canned foods had to be unloaded and shelved at the Food Bank.
As part of the volunteer experience, students were also to work with the populations served by the nonprofit organizations. During our early class sessions, we read about and discussed "others" and "otherness" in Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World (Daloz, Keen, Keen, Parks & Parks, 1996). I knew from my own work at homeless shelters that encounters with the "other" are disheartening, sometimes frightening, and always unsettling. In class, I talked about the homeless man who exposed his infected feet, covered with open sores, as he gratefully exchanged his old socks for the new pair I gave him. I told the story of the little girl from a shelter who, after I had helped her make a sun catcher out of colored pieces of tissue paper, turned to me and said she wished she had a home so she could hang it in the window to catch the light. Realistically, though, I knew that nothing my students read, nothing I could say, would prepare them for this aspect of their volunteer work.
Over the next few weeks, as we discussed the purpose and history of nonprofit organizations in class, out of class the students were to gather information and record in their journals descriptions of work the nonprofit organization was involved in and the population it served. What I received were student journals filled with detailed descriptions, moving stories, life-changing experiences-and a great desire to make a difference. For the first time in over twenty years of teaching, I had students tell me that they wanted to "get writing," that there were projects that needed funded-now!
So, with each student assigned by his or her nonprofit mentor a project to be funded, we went to work in the library, researching in such ominous volumes as the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, the National Directory of Corporate Giving, and other equally weighty reference materials. We went online to the Foundation Center Web site; we visited corporate and private foundation Web sites, evaluating each potential source of funding, searching for a match. We thoroughly covered the component parts of a grant, articulating need's statements and ways of evaluating and measuring the success of the projects that would address those needs. As students worked with their nonprofit mentors on budgets for the proposals, most were amazed at how much was already being accomplished with the organizations' present meager budgets, and all realized how desperately in need of extra support these organizations were. Over the course of weeks, we wrote; we worked in peer writing groups discussing one another's grants; we conferenced; we wrote some more; we rewrote. A synergy evolved. Students would come to class with information on possible foundations for their classmates to consider. The accountant major in the class offered to help everyone with the budget portion of the grant. This was collaboration at its best-unexpected and unselfishly offered.
The most remarkable development that occurred, though, was in the depth of introspection my students demonstrated as the course progressed. When asked during the first week of the course to describe in their journals their present commitment to the common good, the majority declared themselves too busy with schoolwork, jobs, and other commitments. One student described being overwhelmed: "I feel my biggest roadblock [to committing to the common good] is choosing which cause I want to support. I see so many causes and injustices and suffering everywhere; I feel so overwhelmed that ... I have retreated from living a committed life." One student even declared herself a cynic, doubting that either individual or organized acts of social service make a difference in the lives of those "less fortunate." In other words, as students initially approached their service-learning experience, many were skeptical of their ability to change the status quo.
As the course progressed, however, and students continued to write in their journals about their volunteer experiences, their encounters with the "other," the impact their organizations were making in the community, subtle and significant changes occurred. Most learned that they could make a difference. Many experienced a real sense of connectedness and the power of group effort. One student noted that "solving [problems] is not as important as tackling them as a group with shared goals and beliefs." Perhaps, the most profound and important change, though, was the evaporation of "walls." As one student put it, the volunteer experience "taught me that there are good people everywhere and that some just start out with more obstacles than others. I met people with life stories that made [me] wonder where they got the will to get up in the morning. And these [people] whom I didn't share a neighborhood with, nor a childhood with, nor a country of origin [with] ... turned out to be some of the best and most enlightening people I have met."
From a semester that started out with over fifty percent of the class describing lives too filled with individual pursuits to allow for acts of citizenship, at least one third of the class has now decided to continue on as volunteers with their nonprofit organizations. One student even agreed to be a mentor for the next year with Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Even if in the months ahead the grant proposals aren't funded, my students know that they and their writing can effect powerful changes. However, if all goes well, the beds at the children's shelter will have new linens and comforters; the SPCA will have a dog quarantine facility; the Food Bank of will have a full-time, salaried nutritionist. If all goes well, students will continue their work with the now 36 nonprofit organizations partnering with the university in this endeavor. If all goes well, there will be one student (I hope more) who "doesn't love a wall, / [Who] wants it down."
Bringle, R., & Hatcher, J. (1999). Reflection in service learning: Making meanings of experience. Educational Horizons, 77, 179-185.
Daloz, L. A., Keen, C. H., Keen, J. P., Parks, S., & Parks, S. D. (1996). Common fire: Leading lives of commitment in a complex world. Boston: Beacon.
Gere, A. R., & Sinor, J. (1997). Composing service learning. The Writing Instructor, 16, 53-63.
Hensen, L., & Sutliff, K. (1998). A service learning approach to business and technical writing instruction. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 28 (2), 189-205.
Herzberg, B. (1994). Community service and critical teaching. College Composition and Communication, 45, (3), 307-319.
All quotations from student journals are cited with permission.
On-going topics To find additional articles on a specific topic, please see 1997-2001 Author and Title Index
Filetti, Assistant Professor of English, directs the English Department's Technical Writing Concentration. She has taught at the College of Charleston, the American Univ., and the U.S. Naval Academy.…
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Publication information: Article title: Writing for Nonprofit Organizations: A Classroom without Walls. (On-Going Topics). Contributors: Filetti, Jean S. - Author. Journal title: Academic Exchange Quarterly. Volume: 5. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 2001. Page number: 179+. © 2007 Rapid Intellect Group, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.