It would be an interesting exercise to go around the boardroom asking each board member to describe their perspective of your nonprofit organization’s civic footprint. The answers may reveal how well your board members understand the concept and importance of civic engagement as it relates to your board’s work.
Nonprofits enhance civic engagement by encouraging community involvement, maintaining a sense of democracy, filling the gaps in governments services, and giving the community a voice. Your board can learn much about best practices for civic engagement by studying the practices and results of other nonprofits that successfully pursue civic engagement. We’ll provide some additional food for thought by outlining 9 best practices for nonprofit civic engagement.
What Is Civic Engagement?
Your board may or may not be aware of the importance of civic engagement to your nonprofit’s work. Some board members may not even have a clear understanding of what it means.
That said, let’s begin with defining civic engagement. What is the difference between civic engagement, civic participation, service learning, and public involvement? Technically speaking, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between them. The primary difference in the terms relates to your geographical location.
The term ‘community engagement’ is popular in Australia, South Africa, and Canada, while public involvement is the most common term in the United Kingdom. Civic engagement is the most preferred term for nonprofits and others in the United States.
Where does service-learning fit into the definition of civic engagement? The American Psychological Association points out a connection between civic engagement and service-learning. According to their definition, “Civic engagement is a broader concept that may encompass, but is not limited to, service-learning.”
Civic engagement encompasses civic action, civic skills, social cohesion, and civic commitment. By contrast, service-learning is typically integrated with the academic curriculum for students. Service-learning offers students opportunities to apply their civic engagement experiences in real life once they enter the workforce.
Civic engagement can take on many forms, including direct service, research, advocacy, education, political involvement, socially responsible behavior, and philanthropic behavior, to name a few.
To bring the focus of civic engagement into clear view, next, we’ll look at a few examples of nonprofit organizations that use civic engagement successfully.
3 Examples of Nonprofits That Use Civic Engagement Successfully
Here are some prime examples of a few nonprofits that have leveraged civic engagement to make a positive impact.
- Petersburg College Foundation Inc.- This nonprofit college is committed to service-learning as part of student success. The college notes that students who participate in civic engagement activities have higher grade point averages, increased retention rates, and higher graduation rates. Student participants also have improved academic knowledge and better critical thinking, communication, and leadership skills.
- Civic Nation- In addition to fostering civic engagement, Civic Nation also promotes strengthening democracy, voter participation, social justice, public health crises, and fighting for gender equity. The efforts of Civic Nation have increased the confidence of COVID-19 vaccines in communities of color, improved voter turnout, established partnerships with over 80 companies, and much more.
- Headcount- Headcount is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that leverages the power of music to get more voters registered. They reach young people at concerts and online to inform them about the benefits of voting and empower them to use their voices. More than 100 festivals and touring artists partner with Headcount to help increase voter registrations.
Now that you are inspired, here are our 9 best practices for civic engagement.
9 Best Practices for Civic Engagement
- Connect your culture and theory with practice. Determine whether you are promoting and implementing things authentically.
- Ensure your objectives and activities coincide with your mission and don’t conflict with it.
- Keep your activities on a manageable scale and intentionally target your projects and results. It’s better to have a small civic engagement plan and be successful with it rather than aim for grandiose plans that yield mediocre results.
- Establish a civic engagement strategy that is equitable and inclusive and highlights the value of diversity.
- Provide learning opportunities where groups and individuals can learn about community issues and organizations before, during, and after events.
- Be aware of risks in the interest of protecting your nonprofit. For example, your organization may ask students to sign a release of liability form and the expectations of their contract before beginning their service. Also, be sure you have the proper insurance in place.
- Foster partnerships that are reciprocal. Collaborate with various partners in the community to enhance your nonprofit’s work and expand outreach efforts.
- Be humble in your approach to community engagement activities. Keep an open mind and be a good listener. Be aware of the influence of power and privilege during civic engagement activities and strive to minimize the impact.
- Measure your outcomes. You can’t know whether your civic engagement efforts are successful unless you measure the results in a meaningful way.
As a special note of caution for faith-based organizations, be sure to plan activities that are nonpartisan and nonsectarian. Be mindful that social services should be available for everyone in need regardless of religious beliefs. For example, offering a food pantry at a house of worship is acceptable, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to teach a bible class to the public. As another example, it’s acceptable to encourage and the means for individuals to register to vote. However, it’s not appropriate to do so while promoting any individual party or candidate.
Civic engagement is a strategy that incorporates multiple activities that will help further your nonprofit’s work. Getting people in the community involved in your work will help your board better understand your community’s needs and consider how your nonprofit can improve the quality of life for all. Civic engagement activities bring your community together, enabling the community to tackle the most challenging problems with great success.
Quote: “Civic engagement is more than a collection of meetings, techniques, and tools…civic engagement is often viewed as a means of gathering consent for initiatives supported by those with wealth and power, rather than a vehicle for delivering civic power to the community…” https://organizingengagement.org/models/six-principles-for-equitable-and-inclusive-civic-engagement/