skip to Main Content
Civic Engagement Nonprofit Image

Best practices for nonprofit civic engagement


Every nonprofit has a civic footprint, which is an organization’s impact on its community. Board members of nonprofit organizations should understand their organization’s civic footprint so they can encourage more civic engagement through their mission and work.

Civic engagement is a key part of the success of mission-driven organizations. Nonprofits encourage civic engagement by promoting community involvement, maintaining a sense of common good, ensuring the welfare of people in need, and giving the community a way to contribute to the improvement of society. 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.

What is civic engagement?

Let’s begin with defining civic engagement. Civic engagement is known by several different terms:

The term ‘community engagement’ is popular in Australia, South Africa and Canada, while ‘public involvement’ is the most common term in the United Kingdom and Ireland. ‘Civic engagement’ is used most often for nonprofits and other mission-driven organizations in the United States. For this article, we’ll continue to refer to civic engagement.

Civic engagement encompasses 4 key areas:

  1. Civic action
  2. Civic skills
  3. Social cohesion
  4. Civic commitment.

Public school students often learn about civic engagement through service learning, which is typically integrated with the academic curriculum. Service learning offers students opportunities to apply their civic engagement experiences in real life once they enter the workforce. 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.” Meanwhile, The Kirwan Institute’s Principles for Equitable and Inclusive Civic Engagement framework states that, “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.”

 “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…” – The Kirwan Institute’s Principles for Equitable and Inclusive Civic Engagement framework 

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.

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.

To bring civic engagement into focus, 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 examples of nonprofits that have leveraged civic engagement to make a positive impact.

  1. The Orton Family Foundation supports residents in having a voice in community planning through its Community Heart & Soul program. The foundation assists community members in identifying shared values that impact planning decisions. By doing so, the foundation fosters social cohesion and responsive policy at the local level.
  1. Faith in Action is a national network of community organizers working to eradicate racism, discrimination, and economic inequality. The network gathers congregations of different denominations to create a values-based organization for change. Local chapters have strong community roots and work to solve neighborhood issues.
  1. The Committee of Seventy launched a competition for Pennsylvanians to draw their own congressional map using an interactive online tool. Called Draw the Lines PA, this initiative helps citizens make informed and effective contributions to the debate on gerrymandering. It encourages community participation through events and arranges meetings between citizens and policymakers.

Now that you have some examples of civic engagement at work, here are some tips for nonprofits seeking to promote it.

Best practices for civic engagement

Connect your culture and theory with practice

For mission-driven organizations, authenticity is essential. Make sure to connect what you do in the community with what you know through research and study. Your organization’s culture – your board, leadership, staff, volunteers – should be in alignment with your actions and efforts in the community.

Ensure your objectives and activities coincide with your mission and don’t conflict with it

Objectives should be carefully planned by staff and be reviewed by the board and leadership. Make sure that any actions taken align with your mission. For your efforts to be most effective, your organization must stay within the parameters of your overall goals and philosophy.

Keep your activities on a manageable scale, especially in the beginning

It’s better to have a small civic engagement plan and be successful with it rather than aim for unrealistic goals that you aren’t able to reach. Overpromising and then being unable to deliver erodes public trust in your organization.

Establish a civic engagement strategy

A strategy for how your nonprofit will spur civic engagement in the community will help the organization focus on the desired goals and outcomes of your efforts.

Provide learning opportunities

For true engagement, groups and individuals need space to learn about community issues. Your organization can provide information and be available in person to answer questions before, during and after events.

Be aware of risks in the interest of protecting your nonprofit. For example, your organization may ask volunteers 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 in case volunteers, staff or community members are injured or harmed while doing work for your organization.

Foster mutual partnerships

Find like-minded organizations to work with, which will extend your reach and influence. Collaborating with community partners enhances your nonprofit’s work and expand outreach efforts.

Approach community engagement activities with an open mind

Be a good listener. Be aware of the influence of power and privilege during civic engagement activities and strive to minimize the impact. Make sure that what you are providing truly is meeting a need in the community.

Measure your outcomes

You can’t know whether your civic engagement efforts are successful unless you measure the results in a meaningful way. Your partners, including community members, business partners and current and potential donors will want to see progress toward goals. The board and the organization should strive for transparency in making these results available.

As a special note of caution, 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 provide the means for individuals to register to vote. However, it’s not appropriate to do so while promoting any individual party or candidate.

How technology can support civic engagement

Technology such as board management software can help nonprofit organizations and their boards foster and enhance civic engagement. For example, document libraries are a central location to store civic engagement strategies and plans, training videos and key information that board members can access at any time on any device.

Secure workrooms allow for board members to work collaboratively on civic engagement projects. BoardEffect’s survey, custom field and reporting features simplifies the process of recording actions that board members are taking with regards to civic engagement.

BoardEffect is designed with the unique needs of volunteer boards in mind. Our nonprofit board management software streamlines board processes, enhances communication and promotes accountability, helping your board be even more effective at engaging with your community this year.

Ed Rees

Ed is a seasoned professional with over 12 years of experience in the Governance space, where he has collaborated with a diverse range of organizations. His passion lies in empowering these entities to optimize their operations through the strategic integration of technology, particularly in the realms of Governance, Risk, and Compliance (GRC).

Back To Top
PHP Code Snippets Powered By :