How Is Service Learning Different From Community Service?

November 30, 2016

Community Service versus Service Learning…what’s the difference? Although the two are sometimes thought of as synonyms, they’re actually two different approaches to service. Understanding these differences can help you determine which is better for you.

What is Community Service?

Community Service refers to more informal activities performed by individuals, schools, community organizations, and churches that focus on providing a service and can be completed in many ways. How and when that service is accomplished is a result of the individual inspirations of the people who are participating.

What is Service Learning?

Service Learning is a much more formalized process. Instead of bringing together volunteers in an informal setting to accomplish a general objective, Service Learning requires that the people involved in the activity come together to plan the process first. In most cases, Service Learning projects are part of a formal education program for the participants, usually students. Service Learning is defined by the presence of a specific educational goal.

Some people may think Service Learning projects aren’t as valuable to their communities because of the emphasis on education. However, in many cases Service Learning can be more helpful to a community because of the planning and organization. Because volunteers learn how to plan and organize a labor effort, the service is usually provided with great efficiency and results.

Are people in Service Learning programs volunteers?

With both Community Service workers and service learners there is no formal exchange of money for services provided. In this way, service learners are definitely volunteers. In many cases, Service Learning students are paying the institution that puts on the Service Learning program. They know ahead of time that their labor and organizational skills will be required for certain projects. In a way, this means that they are paying to volunteer, and in exchange, they expect to be taught a certain skill set that will benefit them in the future.

What are the advantages of a Community Service project?

The major advantage of a Community Service program is the ease with which it can be put together. Because there is no formal planning stage, people can work on a volunteer project at any time. Most people can participate because there’s usually not a specified skill required. People simply work on what they are best at, and the spirit of the community drives the results of the effort.

What are the advantages of a Service Learning project?

A Service Learning program has its advantages in efficiency and scale. Participants in a Service Learning program will learn how to organize an effort that requires skilled workers and bigger labor efforts than what may be required for a small Community Service project. Service Learning participants also educate themselves on how to maintain an effort. Municipal and citywide volunteer efforts are usually helmed by an individual with Service Learning skills.

Should my organization participate in Community Service or Service Learning?

Smaller efforts that do not require professional administration or skilled labor may be able to flourish as a Community Service project. Politically charged efforts, efforts that expand beyond a neighborhood, or efforts that require an inordinate amount of time may be best served by a Service Learning project.

Although Community Service and Service Learning are different, both have the potential to improve communities and bring people together. Thinking about the differences between them as well as the goal and scope of the project can help determine which type of approach is a better fit.

If you’d like to start tracking your community service work or service learning projects, download the MobileServe app for free on the App StoreGoogle Play, or on!