This article outlines how a team of academics, professional staff and students from a Scottish University in the United Kingdom worked with voluntary sector partners to achieve civic and ‘social purpose’ goals, through setting up a project called The Collaborative. This is a reflective paper that draws on collaborative autoethnography and is written collarboratively by that team of academics, professional staff and students. We explore how universities can achieve their civic engagement goals by serving as anchor institutions, and we develop a conceptual framework for how anchor institutions can enact their institutional mission of ‘social purpose’. We uncover important considerations for university initiatives aiming to improve academic and student engagement with community partners for social change, with three learning points around building relationships, building capacity, and barriers to engagement. Service-learning can be used as a pathway to becoming a civic university, however, there are structural barriers that need to be overcome. This is an account of an ethical fact-finding project, reflecting on our experience of working with the local voluntary sector, designed to facilitate the University’s better engagement with such collaborative ‘social purpose’ ventures.

Practitioner Notes

  1. To build relationships with the local voluntary sector for impact, an internal broker is needed who understands the internal dynamics of Higher Education Institutions, has knowledge of and a commitment to the voluntary sector and can map existing opportunities for engagement.
  2. By engaging in activities such as service-learning, particularly with the voluntary sector, universities can achieve more inclusive service delivery. As there may be institutional constraints on academics’ time, service-learning activities may offer a more convenient initial route for greater civic engagement.
  3. Projects that focus on real-world problems and that have the potential for generating authentic and meaningful consequences are valued by students. However, if there is a lack of institutional support for wider-scale activities of this nature, the workload is likely to fall on educators, and the efforts and impacts (for students, staff and voluntary sector organisations) will be on a smaller scale. However, if there is institutional appetite and support for this type of work, then educators can utilise our model in their own university and the scale can be much improved.