9 Powerful Service Learning Projects to Inspire Your Students

home mural

Art matters! As art educators, we all know this to be true. But, when you think deeply about why art matters, the answers come in all shapes and sizes. To me, art is one of the best ways to show our students how they can help change the world with their creativity.

This type of learning has several titles including service learning, social justice, or my personal favorite, “Art with Purpose”!

Service learning is loosely defined as an educational approach that combines learning objectives with community service to provide an experience that meets the needs of a society. Social justice dates back to Plato and Aristotle and can be seen as a means to teach through the act of caring. In fact, many educators have Aristotle’s quote hanging in their classrooms, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all. – Aristotle

“Art with Purpose” is a term I started using about 20 years ago, and it has remained near and dear to my heart. I feel very strongly about it, as I have seen this idea not only change the attitudes of my students but change the attitudes of my school and community as a whole. “Art with Purpose” is simply defined as “mark making with the intent of helping others.” To date, my students have raised over $100,000 for local charities through these exciting and educational activities. I’m sharing my favorite “Art with Purpose” activities below!

4 Tried and True “Art with Purpose” Activities

1. Hold a Silent Auction

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer 25 years ago, and it was a life-changing event for my family. I recall sitting in the doctor’s office hearing the words, “You have cancer.” I knew then I would spend my life doing what I could to help educate about and eradicate this illness. One idea I had was to have my students hold a silent auction where all of the proceeds would go directly to Relay for Life.

If you’d like to hold a silent auction, here are some tips.

1. Motivate students by sharing personal stories.
To start this project, I have my high school students discuss the effects of cancer. I ask students who feel comfortable sharing how cancer has touched their lives to do so. Most students are shocked to see so many of them know at least one person who has been affected. After the discussion, they are ready and eager to begin planning the event.

2. Partner students with patrons.
For our event, each student is required to create a piece of art. However, to up the ante, we also pair our students up with real-life patrons. Having a specific person in mind helps them stay focused and put forth their best effort. Students have about a week to create, and the work that comes out is beyond beautiful and full of love. They know their patron will be placing a bid on the art and the bid will go directly to our Relay for Life team.

relay for life artwork

3. Make sure you market your event!
At our school, not only do students create the work, but they also create invitations, bid sheets, videos and welcome signs for the big night. This event has become a huge part of our community, so we now get over 500 people in attendance each year, and we raise between $6000 to $8000. It’s a truly spectacular evening! And I am happy to report that my mom beat cancer and has had the opportunity to fly in and be a part of this event over the years.

4. Price your art right!
The bidding for each piece of art starts at $10, which is a nice entry price. However, we do encourage bidding wars! Often we will see work go for $50 to $100. The students are so excited to see their art raise money for this important cause and there are a lot of joyful tears throughout this one-hour event.

2. Create an Empty Bowls Event

According to the website, Empty bowls is “…an international grassroots effort to raise both money and awareness in the fight to end hunger.” There are many different ways to go about holding an Empty Bowls fundraiser. To get started, check out the five different ideas in the download below!


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At my school, we held a fundraising event where community members could come and eat a small roll and a small bowl of soup to spread awareness and raise money. During the event, the students sang the Empty Bowls song for the guests. Then, each guest left with a pinch pot bowl made by one of our students for “dessert.” We raised over $2000 that first year and donated it to our local food pantry.

As we worked on the pinch pots in the weeks leading up to the event, the students were thrilled with the opportunity to create meaningful gifts for others and do important work to help our community.

For more information, visit www.emptybowls.net.

3. Be Inspired by a Local Charity

Another great way to develop a service learning project is to look within your community for inspiration.

In my case, my students wanted to help out a wonderful local charity called Rainbow Village, a shelter for homeless mothers and children getting back on their feet. Of course, I said, “Yes,” and we set to work developing a plan.

We met with the director, and my students spent the next three weeks after school working with the children to create drawings and paintings of homes. These lovely works were then collaged onto a large panel mural, and my students painted the word HOME on top.

home mural

The final piece was incredible and was auctioned off at their community gala event where it brought in $18,000! This project was life-changing for my students as well as for the families at the shelter. This is what “Art with Purpose” is all about!

4. Develop a Recurring Holiday Event

I’ve found running an event around the holidays is always successful. And, as much as students love to paint large, they also love to paint small!

So, if you’d like to try and develop a project, I would recommend mini canvases and easels!

Simply have your students select a charity of choice and then have them create something on the mini canvasses. Create an event and invite the parents and community members to come in and bid on these mini masterpieces.

mini art

You can choose the same charity year after year or find a new cause each time. Over the years, my students have raised over $5000 for my son’s organizaion, Croy’s Cause: NUCDF. It is a charity my students continue to request.

For more information, please visit www.nucdf.org.

And the list goes on…

There are so many wonderful and creative ways your students can make a difference in their world by the art they create. It’s all about doing a little research to see what’s out there. Or better yet, think about specific things your community may need and come up with creative ways to bring your students and the community together because “Art with Purpose” really does matter!

Here are 5 more “Art with Purpose” ideas:

  1. Create artwork of dogs and cats and auction them off to benefit your local humane society.
  2. Find local organizations who work with people with special needs and invite them to join your students for an afternoon of artmaking.
  3. Set up a face painting booth at a community event and ask for donations to a charity of your students’ choice.
  4. Participate in global events like Pinwheels for Peace and Haiti Houses.
  5. Participate in The Memory Project.

How are you teaching “Art with Purpose” activities in your art room?

Do you think it’s important to teach your students they can make a difference with their art?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Debi West

Debi West is one of AOEU’s adjunct instructors and a former AOEU Writer and NBCT art educator. She loves sharing with others and enthusiastically stands behind her motto, “Together we ART better!”

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