A classmate once remarked, “A Duke student is more likely to create a new organization called ‘Duke Against Food Insecurity’ than to create a campus chapter of the NC Food Bank. And if the organization already exists, they probably won’t ask.”

Students, when you ask, articulate the importance of service beautifully—of grounding work in a community, developing relationships across differences of experience, leveraging skills for a greater good. And most students have been deeply involved in service—having founded a nonprofit, started a campus organization, volunteered or, either by choice or by accident, wound up in a service-learning course.

There are more than 60 service organizations housed under the Duke Partnership for Service (dPS) alone, and almost certainly more operating outside of dPS or DukeGroups. dPS President Dayton Grogan has a bird's eye view of campus service culture. For him, the issue is clear.

“When it comes to creating service organizations, Duke students tend to reinvent the wheel.”

But why? Maybe we’re just entrepreneurial. Maybe starting an organization is a feel-good outlet for gaining quick leadership. Or maybe it’s about the accolades. But while the answer to this question might make for an interesting commentary on campus culture, it doesn’t move us toward actionable solutions. Service in the status quo, according to Grogan, “leaves plenty of room for improvement.”

When we talk about improving service on campus, too often conversation devolves into unhelpful vagaries. We print manifestos about the imperative of community-grounded work without the boring, in-the-weeds analysis of how we push Duke’s campus ethos toward an embrace of more meaningful engagement.

So how can we nudge that student interested in hunger issues to start by asking more constructive questions: what already exists here? how can I maximize the time a group spends doing service work and minimize the time spent making flyers? how can I use my passion to build on the work of others?

Organizations like DSG and dPS must remedy the challenges posed by a highly decentralized service environment. By-and-large, service groups function as self-sufficient silos. Duke’s highly diffuse service culture poses three primary challenges for organizations.

First, a lack of a robust central organization results in redundancies between groups serving virtually identical constituencies on and off campus. And even groups that operate in similar domains are unable to capture synergies that may exist between groups—synergies that could allow for larger-scale projects and longer-term relationships with community partners.

In the status quo, not all service groups send representatives to the Duke Partnership for Service; the only universal point of contact is funding and group approval through SOFC and LAUNCH—oversight bodies whose prerogative is largely to filter out inactive groups rather than apply a critical lens to the direction of undergraduate service.

Second, the Duke Partnership for Service, LAUNCH and SOFC are structured to incentivize small-scale, independent service. It isn’t that groups don’t want to collaborate, or even that they can’t, but the default has largely become one of inter-group disconnection. Consequently, outreach remains untargeted and large-scale involvement is diminished.

Third, silos between groups make the common barriers to service work larger. Those institutional barriers—such as poor off-campus transportation, onerous requirements for funding requests, and the time and money spent advertising—discourage small-scale groups from impactful engagement.

As a result, service initiatives that pop up over the short term are less likely to remain mainstays of community involvement over the long term—long after the original group of students first brought forward the idea.

The Duke Partnership for Service, to its credit, has worked diligently to create cohesion. However, a more intentional structure around undergraduate service akin to the Campus-Y at UNC could facilitate improvement—and over the short term, there are steps that can be taken.

First, a better connection between dPS and Duke LAUNCH could reduce redundancy and facilitate cohesion. Second, if dPS required membership of a representative of every service group—even by meeting once per semester—meaningful mechanisms for collaboration between groups could be established. Moreover, collaboration could improve the collective action problem that prevents service groups from breaking down institutional barriers to service; for example, establishing an easily-accessible transportation grant through dPS, rather than through SOFC, could make small-scale service less onerous. Finally, larger, more cohesive service could generate more sustainable community partnerships. At Carolina, members of the Campus-Y describe service culture as one in which groups “build on the shoulders of giants” rather than reinvent the wheel. Surely Duke could do the same.

There is value in establishing something new to meet an urgent need, but the value of community engagement extends beyond the entrepreneurial. A systems-based approach to community service re-engagement can free us from the task of beginning something anew while empowering the type of engagement that connects communities, forges meaningful relationships and pushes us toward a more absolute embrace of knowledge in the service of our society.

Tanner Lockhead is a Trinity senior. His column, “not straight talk” runs on alternate Mondays.