Learning from a Failed Community-University Research Project

By RASHEDA L. WEAVER, PhD

In recent years, there has been a growth in the number of university-based graduate programs that aim to provide students with “practical research experience” through enrolling them in experiential education courses that connect them to research opportunities with local nonprofit organizations. These courses often come in the form of a practicum, capstone, or externship. Their benefits may include gaining project management skills, applied research skills, consulting experience, experience working with community-based organizations, and improving verbal and written communication skills.

However, many experiential education courses that aim to increase the practical research experience of students fail to meet their goals. In the article, “Learning from Failure: Barriers to Using Experiential Education In Graduate Nonprofit Research Training” published in the Journal of Nonprofit Education and Leadership, my colleagues and I explore lessons we learned from failing to meet the goals of such an experiential research project.

Our project consisted of having me, when I was a doctoral student, manage the evaluation of a 9-week entrepreneurial training program for low-income, minority people at a nonprofit organization in Camden, New Jersey. The goal was to give me practical experience working with a nonprofit organization on research, while also uncovering the impact of this entrepreneurship-based poverty alleviation program. However, institutional barriers and community-level challenges hindered our ability to meet these goals.

One issue we faced was difficulty recruiting graduates from the training program for the evaluation. Another issue related to the fact that our survey method was phone-based and due to the schedule of myself and another graduate student working on the project, we were taking classes at what may have been the best times to reach prospective participants. Another issue related to time-constraints. The practicum was schedule for 1–2 semesters, however the first semester consisted of conducting a literature review, designing the study, applying to the Institutional Review Board for research approval, and applying for grants to support the research. The second semester aimed to focus on data collection, analysis, and write-up, but due to difficulties recruiting participants, the study was canceled. One academic year had already been devoted to the project without much progress.

While the study was discontinued, we learned a great deal from reflecting on the failures and challenges that we encountered. The lessons are discussed in detail in our article, but listed below is a brief overview of each.

Lessons Learned

Using Institutional Support and Resources for Experiential Education

The main lesson learned is that we should have contacted and worked with our campus Office of Civic Engagement. After reviewing their best practices for community-university partnerships (outlined in the article), we realized that we did not meet many of their best practices. Many of our issues may have been prevented by simply involving them in the project so that we could have been aware of the best practices for such experiential education projects.

University–Community Projects in Distressed Cities

This research took place in a distressed city that has suffered a substantial level of population loss within the last few decades. It is possible that many graduates of the training program that we contacted via phone moved and thus were unavailable to answer our calls, hindering their participation in the study.

Time Management and Limitations in Practicum Research

One realization from this research project is that it was more suitable as a long-term research evaluation as opposed to being conducted as part of a one-year practicum. The time constraints and institutional requirements of graduate students left little time for the study to be conducted in the in-depth nature that it required.

Setting Clear Expectations

It may have been more suitable to frame this project as a “learn-as-we-go” kind of project rather than projecting that it would be completed within one year. While nonprofit organizations may have years to work on one project, graduate students only have a limited amount of time to work on research projects in general, especially those that are not their thesis or dissertation.

Tracking Research Progress

One lesson learned was the importance of using a research diary in research. While the study was discontinued, the notes from the research diary were used to develop a manuscript for reporting what led to the failure, which may ultimately help other faculty and organizations working with universities to avoid some of these challenges in the future.

In conclusion, it is important for faculty to document, reflect, and share the failures we face while conducting experiential education projects, especially those relates to graduate research training. Such reflection and sharing may help us and others learn from our mistakes and prevent others from making the same mistakes. Sometimes, it is through our failure and not our successes that we gain a deep learning experience that ultimately makes us greater scholars.

This article is based on the peer-reviewed manuscript:

Weaver, R. L. Danley, S. & Otero-Vera, I. (2018) Learning from failure: Barriers to using experiential education in graduate nonprofit research training. Journal of Nonprofit Education and Leadership, 8 (3), 305–321.

Dr. Rasheda L. Weaver is an Assistant Professor at Iona College’s Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Last year, Dr. Weaver created Weaver’s Social Enterprise Directory, a national, public directory for social enterprises (businesses that seek to address social problems) operating in the United States of America. She also conducted the first large-scale study of the social, economic, and legal activities of social enterprises in the nation. Dr. Weaver received her PhD and an MS in Public Affairs from Rutgers University, an MA in Applied Psychology from New York University, and a BA in Psychology from Lehman College. She’s an avid salsa dancer and is passionate about yoga and self-care practices.

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