Service learning and a community service volunteer opportunity are sometimes viewed as synonyms.  In truth, they are two distinct approaches used to accomplish specific outcomes for the community and volunteer. Understanding the difference can help you determine which method best suits your program, which in turn, will help you find the right volunteer opportunity for your students and stick to goals that benefit the individuals and organizations.

Related Blog Post: How volunteering makes people better citizens

What is Community Service?

Community service refers to a more informal volunteer opportunity.  These activities are often open to the community and generally do not require highly specialized organization of labor. For that reason, they can be more inclusive and completed in multiple ways.


Key aspects include:

  • Unpaid Volunteer Opportunity
  • Focused on Community Improvement
  • Informal Volunteer Opportunity
  • Open to All

Don’t see voluntary? Many high schools now require community service for graduation. It is the ability to decide when, where and how community service happens that differentiates community service volunteer opportunities from its more formal counterpart - service learning.


Common examples include:

  • Organizing Food Drives
  • Volunteering at Walks or Runs

Looking for examples of a community service volunteer opportunity for your school? Consider organizing a bake sale for a local charity, a food or clothing drive for the community, or giving back through nature by planting trees!

Why Choose a Community Service Project?

The major advantage of a Community Service program is the speed with which it can come together. Take the example of a community service volunteer opportunity to paint a local baseball fence blue. Volunteers arrive, receive paint and brushes, paint the fence blue and the mission is accomplished.  Community service tends to be more inclusive of all skill levels and abilities. Participants in this type of volunteer opportunity gravitate towards their interests and the spirit of the community drives the results.

What is Service Learning?

Service learning (often called service learning volunteerism) is a more formalized process combining research, assessment and reflection on key learning objectives related to the volunteer opportunity. 


Key Aspects Include:

  • Unpaid Volunteer Opportunity
  • Focused on Community Improvement
  • Formally Defined Objectives, Roles and Attendee Reflection
  • Scheduled Participants

Service learning volunteerism is popular with schools trying to tie a volunteer opportunity (often multiple opportunities) into projects to a specific educational outcome.  In many cases, a volunteer opportunity is combined with another volunteer opportunity to reinforce classroom learning. In other cases, service learning may allow students to explore future career opportunities.


When placing students in service learning opportunities, be sure to tailor their activities to clear learning objectives and service objectives. Take biology students working with a wetlands conservation group, for example. Their learning objective can be to gain knowledge of ecosystems and coastal erosion while their service objective is habitat preservation.

Why Choose a Service Learning Project?

A service learning program has advantages in efficiency and scale.

Take the example of a high school studying pollution.  The volunteer opportunity may be to clean a creek. Before leaving campus, participant roles and outcomes are clearly defined.  One set of students removes debris from the creek. Another set of students bag the debris while a third group helps weigh and document the trash removed.  Back on campus, results are translated into pollution reduction statistics that directly relate to learning objectives. 


Because of the scale and formality of this type of volunteer opportunity, a key advantage of service learning can be skill development.  Planning skills develop project management skills while on-site work can build additional skills. Municipal and citywide volunteer opportunities are usually helmed by an individual with service learning skills.


Where Does My Organization Fit?

Great choice to get involved!  Volunteering has so many benefits.


Consider your resources (most often time).


Consider intended outcomes. Do you want the volunteer opportunity to result in a painted fence or are we trying to learn how to be professional painters in the process? 


A volunteer opportunity that benefits from mass attendance, does not require formal administration or skilled labor may flourish as a community service project.


A politically charged volunteer opportunity, efforts that expand beyond a neighborhood, or efforts that require complex workforce assignments may be best served by a service learning project.


Then get involved! 


Whether you need to track volunteer hours for your community service work or record insights from student service learning projects, download the MobileServe app for free on the App Store, Google Play, or on!


Originally published November 30, 2016. Last updated November 19, 2019.

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