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The Benefits that Accrue to Students and Community Partners from Embedding Service-Learning into the Marketing Curriculum

 

November 19-20. 2010
Howard University
Washington, D.C.

Jennifer Barr,Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Introduction

"Our nation is in the midst of a volunteering boom" according to a survey of 1008 adults in the U.S. (Berland 2010, p. 4). This finding is atypical. Historically, there has been a direct correlation between the state of the economy and volunteerism in the U.S. It's posited that the recent "compassion boom" of people helping others has been spurred by the jobless rate in the U.S. as well as catastrophic occurrences such as the Haiti earthquake and the BP oil spill in the Gulf. The prevalent reasons for civic engagement conveyed by respondents included simple altruism, a sense of moral obligation, and a motivation to act on behalf of their own communities. In fact, 94 percent of those surveyed believe it's important to be involved in a community cause.

Volunteerism is consistent with the mindset, value system, and motivation of the Millennials or Generation Y segment, representing about 80 million or roughly 30 percent of the American population (Gerdes, 2006). Upon graduation from college, they gravitate towards companies with corporate cultures that stress social responsibility, diversity, and environment (Gerdes, 2006). Further, community service and serving the greater good are among their top priorities (Gerdes, 2008). In short, they strive to "do good, while doing well" (Gerdes, 2008, p. 1).

Blending civic engagement with academia is one of the challenges facing higher education during the 21st century. Colleges and universities are under pressure to revisit their historic commitment to service (Hinck and Brandell, 2000). Indeed, developing partnerships between the campus and external organizations is at the heart of renewing community engagement (W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 1999), and advancing civic responsibility (Gronski and Pigg, 2000).

Service-Learning and Marketing

Service-learning, a teaching method that integrates community service with academic study, is particularly relevant to marketing courses given the discipline's interest in social causes. Unfortunately, business faculty have been less inclined to incorporate the experiential method into their coursework than their social sciences and liberal arts counterparts (Klink and Athaide, 2004), although a review of the business literature noted that the field of marketing, among others, has numerous service-learning applications relative to course-earning objectives (Andrews, 2007). In fact, Petkus, (2000) noted that advanced-level marketing courses "…can make an even greater contribution to the marketing efforts of a non-profit organization. Students at this level have a greater breadth and depth of marketing knowledge and skills… (from other course projects, internships, etc.) to draw on for reflection" (65).

The instructor has incorporated a service-learning component into Strategic Marketing, a capstone course, for the past several years. A detailed overview of the course is presented below, including application of the experiential learning method, structure of the course, and the benefits that accrue to the students and community partners.

The Strategic Marketing Course

Strategic Marketing is a requirement for Stockton business students earning a bachelor of science degree with a concentration in marketing. The primary objective of the course is to present students with the tools necessary to make competent decisions in the business world as marketing professionals. Students apply the skill set acquired through a culmination of prior business coursework, work experience, and internships, as well as the fundamental theories and techniques learned in the capstone course to a unique task for a service-learning agency. The civic engagement forum piques student interest, and the textbook and case analysis components are crystallized through application, making the course more digestible and manageable for students. Consequently, the classroom experience becomes more relevant, interesting, and understandable.

A service-learning component has been integrated into the course curriculum since the Fall 2004 semester. Real-world problems and applications are taught in a real-world context; specifically, the course is used as a platform to explore, craft, and implement projects for a multitude of service-learning partners including United Way of Atlantic County, the Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City, Family Service Association, and the School Peacemaker (an anti-bullying organization). In essence, the class establishes a bridge between the college and non-profit community so students can garner valuable experience in the field while simultaneously gaining an appreciation for civic engagement.

Community partners have been secured primarily through the service-learning office at Stockton. Other sources have included students in the class (their siblings or parents run a non-profit) and the instructor's awareness of a specific need(s) in the community. For example, a newspaper article read by the instructor about a little boy who had leukemia was the seed for a fundraiser. Parenthetically, a member of that team is now a service-learning partner. Once she graduated, the instructor invited her to engage with the class on projects for her parents' no-kill animal rescue shelter.

Each team elects a project manager, identifies broad goals for the semester (as well as each week), and delivers a written and oral report to the class every other week. The latter is particularly important because the instructor wants the entire class to be informed and wedded to the concept of service-learning. Moreover, there is usually more than one team working with any given organization and the process facilitates reflection throughout the semester (rather than just at the end). An added benefit is the realization that the service-learning tasks undergo various degrees of transformation as the semester progresses, occasionally creating healthy frustration for the students (and mirroring challenges they will inevitably face once they enter the business world).

Minimally, students invest about thirty hours per semester in their projects, including about six on-site visits at their respective service-learning agency. The service-learning project comprises 50 percent of a student's grade. Grading criteria includes submission of all status reports, quality of the final product(s), and feedback from the service-learning partner.

Student teams apply their marketing, business, and technology skills to conceptualizing, researching, refining, and ultimately launching projects for the non-profit agencies. The projects undertaken by the student teams are often dictated by the needs of the respective service-learning partners and have encompassed branding studies; brochures; DVD videos; media kits; flash presentations; marketing plans; Web site development; marketing research studies; newsletters; and grant proposals.

I have generally found that the quality of the projects is directly correlated to the degree of supervision provided by both the instructor and the service-learning contact. Any level of satisfaction is predicated on consistent involvement by the service-learning partner. Ongoing communication among all parties is essential to delivery of a superior product. It's also a means for monitoring whether or not teams are staying on task and managing their time efficiently and effectively.

The last week of the semester, the student teams reflect on the service-learning aspect of the course. Overall, they have reported positive experiences associated with such tasks. Students conveyed that the projects were both challenging and rewarding, and many have articulated their intention to continue volunteer work in the community. They take pride in their service-learning accomplishments, and are eager to share their ideas about potential topics for future Strategic Marketing classes. Students have also communicated the value of building their portfolio in such a competitive and economically-challenging job market. Many have used the service-learning project as a platform for securing an interview. The only areas of concern expressed by students about the course have centered on lack of communication and/or consistent direction from the service-learning agency, group dynamics, group diversity, and the ability to manage the workload.

Another significant outcome of the capstone course is that students experience firsthand the resource shortage and lack of formal marketing training at most non-profits. This further reinforces the importance of filling such a void through a service-learning component in the course curriculum. A surprising anecdotal observation has been the degree of empathy and bonding developed by the students for their respective service-learning partners during the semester. Many have opted to volunteer outside the realm of the course, and, in some cases, continue to engage in such work once the semester has ended.

Written comments on the instructor's student evaluations have generally indicated that students liked the course format; valued the time spent on site at the service-learning organization; felt the project was demanding at times but valuable; thought their knowledge was broadened in the subject area through application; and believed the team project was essential for preparing them for a job in the field.

Benefits of the Service-Learning Experience

The benefits that accrue to the students include establishing an alliance with a non-profit and, in the process, gaining a greater appreciation for that sector; the development of critical thinking and organizational skills; the ability to work collaboratively and creatively; and the capacity for managing a service-learning project from conceptualization through completion. They also have a finished product for their portfolio.

The primary benefits realized by the service-learning partners are the ability to gain ideas and assistance on various projects. In addition to the students' marketing savvy, the agencies place a high premium on their technology skills. The findings and recommendations of the student teams are used by the agencies for planning purposes, to establish new initiatives, and to project a more contemporary image (in terms of brochures, videos, or Web sites).

Conclusion

Incorporating a service-learning component into the curriculum requires advance planning and dedication. It can be quite challenging for the faculty member who serves as the liaison between the community partners and the student teams. And the time commitment can be tremendous, especially at the beginning of the semester. The instructor is required to contact the community agencies, organize a brainstorming session, and, ultimately, formulate ideas into manageable projects. Students need substantial guidance and ongoing communication is essential. Providing samples of projects from prior semesters (e.g., marketing plans) is highly recommended.

In spite of the additional workload, the rewards are immeasurable. The teams lend their skill set to the service-learning partners, gaining confidence in their abilities along the way and completing a quality project for their portfolio in the process. The non-profit organizations are able to reap the benefits of much-needed resources in the areas of human talent and time, yielding important finished work that may otherwise not have come to fruition. From the instructor's perspective, witnessing the realization by students (often for the first time) that they can make a difference in their community and their world is special in and of itself.

References

Andrews, C. P., (2007). Service-learning: Applications and research in business. The Journal of Education for Business, 83(1), 19-26.

Berland, M.J. (2010, March 7). A new Parade poll reveals compassion counts more than ever. Parade: The Sunday Newspaper Magazine, 4-6.

Gerdes, L. (2006, September 18). The best places to launch a career. BusinessWeek, 4001, 64-80.

Gerdes, L. (2008, September 15). The best places to launch a career. BusinessWeek, 4099, 36-46.

Gronski, R., & Pigg, K. (2000). University and community collaboration. The American Behavioral Scientist, 43(5), 781-792.

Hinck, H. S., & Brandell, M. E. (2000). The relationship between institutional support and campus acceptance of academic service learning. The American Behavioral Scientist, 43(5), 868-882.

Klink, R. R. & Athaide, G. A. (2004). Implementing service learning in the principles of marketing course. Journal of Marketing Education, 26 (2), 145-153.

Petkus, E., Jr. (2000). A theoretical and practical framework for service-learning in marketing: Kolb's experiential learning cycle. Journal of Marketing Education, 22 (1), 64-71.

W.K. Kellogg Foundation (1999). Leadership for institutional change initiative Mid-Atlantic consortium: Advancing Community Engagement. Retrieved August 18, 2007 from http://oirap.rutgers.edu/reports/MSA2008/Self-Study-Reports/ODL-Outreach-Report.pdf

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