Community Partnership Tips and Etiquette for Community Involvement

Community engagement can greatly enhance your educational and professional experiences as a Washington and Lee student. At the same time, you can make significant contributions to W&L's large network of community partner organizations and help strengthen these mutually beneficial relationships for the future. Here are a few tips for building trust and respect with our partners in the community.

Be humble

Enter all service and community engagement experiences with humility and openness. Be ready to listen, observe, and learn from individuals and organizations. Community partners are experts and co-educators and will teach you something that we cannot offer on campus. Approach your work as an opportunity to supplement your knowledge, enrich your understanding, and also challenge your assumptions.

Recognize your own privilege

Realize the privilege that is attached to a W&L affiliation, and notice how others perceive that affiliation. Privilege may not allow you to fully understand the cultural, social, economic, and historic contexts which shape how individuals in the community make choices, how community partner agencies operate, and how to best address community-identified needs. Recognize your own limitations before jumping to conclusions or imposing your vision or agenda, while still sharing your fresh perspective and ideas with partners.

Always with, sometimes for, never to

Foster a mentality of "working with" clients, agencies, and staff rather than "doing to." The former expresses solidarity, while the latter conveys an unspoken message of deficiency, powerlessness, and paternalism. "Doing for" may be appropriate if you are volunteering your skills or labor, keeping in mind what the community partner is also doing for you. Acknowledge and embrace the reciprocity in this partnership. Communities need partners and stakeholders, not saviors.

Be respectful

Treat people as if they were your neighbor, no matter where they live, who they are, and what their life circumstances may be. Respect individuals and the mission of the organization you are working with.

Set clear expectations & commit

Volunteering is a valuable opportunity-one that comes with great responsibility. Set clear expectations about your community engagement, including time frame (start and end dates), time commitment (total amount of hours), and final deliverables. Commit, but be careful NOT TO make promises you cannot keep or overcommit to a schedule you cannot follow. Community partners depend on you to hold up your end of the work.

Person over project

It is important to connect with people in a genuine manner and to spend some time conversing with individuals you meet in the community, rather than just focusing on completing your service hours or project as quickly as possible. Process matters. Put people first.

Assume positive intent

Most people try to do the best they can. When interacting with others always assume positive intent. If somebody appears to have a bad attitude, realize that you may not always know what their life circumstances are, or what may be giving rise to their anger, sadness, apathy, or frustration. As Kate Corr from Project Horizon emphasizes, certain behaviors "are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL situations."


Confidentiality is crucial in many instances. Community partners often deal with highly sensitive information. It is your responsibility to learn about the confidentiality policies which are relevant to your work, and to respect and adhere to those policies completely. Disrespecting these could cause serious harm to a client or to the agency and damage the relationship between W&L and the agency.

Express gratitude

W&L students are temporary citizens of Rockbridge County, and it is a privilege to get to know those who have strong ties and longstanding roots in the community. Your partner agency, like most other agencies, may already be short-staffed and underfunded, has taken the time and effort to provide you with hands-on learning experience. Hosting and working with students takes a great deal of time and energy. Don't take their good will for granted. Show your gratitude to your supervisor and to clients for welcoming you into their world.

Act professionally

  • Be dependable. Be at your service site consistently and on time.
  • Give advance notice if you are ill and must be late or absent as soon as possible. Offer to make up the time.
  • Have clear and regular communication with your supervisor. Respond to all messages!
  • Keep your cell phone out of sight and silenced unless your community work requires its use.
  • Dress appropriately. It is your responsibility to learn about the dress code at your agency and follow it completely. What is acceptable on a college campus is not always appropriate at your agency. The following are often impermissible: ripped jeans, low-cut shirts, spaghetti strap tank tops, short skirts or short shorts, or any clothing with mature or otherwise inappropriate references (ex. alcohol, sex, drugs.)
  • When working with clients or students, set professional boundaries where appropriate. If you are unsure, feel free to touch base and discuss with your supervisor.
  • Do not photograph clients/students.
  • Be patient and flexible.

Do good and do no harm

Adopt an oath similar to the Hippocratic Oath used by physicians--avoid anything you think might result in damage or harm, even unintended harm. Some forms of psychological and social harm are often overlooked, such as disparagement, reinforcement of stereotypes, "othering," voyeurism, objectification, implicit bias, and marginalization. If you keep this in mind, you will have a great experience, will maximize potential to do lots of good, and gain experience and knowledge in the process.

Have fun! There are great opportunities awaiting you!

Adapted from: W&L Handbook for Tutors and Mentors; W&L POV 102 Volunteer Tips Sheet; Marisa Charley's presentation on Community Partnership Best Practices; Haas Center's "Principles of Ethical and Effective Service; Johns Hopkins University's SOURCE (Student Outreach Resource Center)'s "The Do's and Don't's of Community Partnerships;" Sam Marullo's "Project D.C.: Urban Research Internship" Georgetown University syllabus.