What does civic engagement look like, really?

photo credit, Library of Congress, via Flickr Commons


Social workers, especially us “macro” types, use a lot of pretty fuzzy language sometimes. What does “empowerment” really mean after all? How do we know effective advocacy when we see it?

And what, really, is “civic engagement”, and how in the world do we measure that?

Answering this question is important not just because it’s never a good idea to spend energy talking about something without really having any idea what we’re actually talking about, but also because defining and measuring and evaluating our civic engagement work is about accountability and integrity, which, after all, are some of the goals towards which our civic engagement work is focused in the first place.

We know that civic engagement is far more than getting people registered to vote, or even than getting them to the polls. I remember a course that I took from Ernesto Cortes, of the Industrial Areas Foundation, in graduate school, and how he talked about how reducing civic engagement, and the exercise of our citizenship, to voting alone, really makes it essentially another aspect of consumerism–choosing between this or that preformulated option, which, of course, isn’t very engaging at all.

But the other stuff, beyond voting, is even harder to measure and truly conceptualize: what does it look like to be authentically involved in the governance of one’s own community, or one’s own life, and how do we begin to track and evaluate that engagement on a broad scale?

The folks at the Building Movement Project (I know, I knowI’m a bit obsessed) have a new paper, Evidence of Change, which discusses evaluating civic engagement efforts and, I believe, offers, if not a roadmap, at least some sparks of guidance for organizations trying to be clear about their goals in this client empowerment work and, ultimately, demonstrate its tangible value.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, because I really believe that there are particular opportunities for advancement of advocacy and civic engagement as legitimate activities, and, really, core strategies, of social service nonprofit organizations, but we’ll never solidify a place for them if we can’t figure out how to assess and communicate about what we’re doing, and why it matters.

Some of the new insights for me from this, most recent, discussion:

  • We can’t measure civic engagement by looking only at the individuals (for example, our clients) involved; truly meaningful civic engagement should be transformative not just for those people, but also for the “host” organization’s capacity for social change, and for the society and institutional structures their engagement is aimed at changing.
  • Rigorously evaluating civic engagement work requires, for many nonprofit social service organizations, TWO significant culture shifts–first towards this kind of empowerment work as a core part of the agency’s operations, and second towards seeing formal evaluation as integral to the organization’s mission. No wonder it’s so hard, and so rare.
  • Just as we’re still in the process of developing new models of social service organizations that integrate advocacy and civic engagement in their direct service work, so, too, do we need to develop new models of evaluation, able to meet the demands of these kinds of nonlinear change processes. And we need the space, within academia and especially philanthropy, for these new evaluation methods to gain legitimacy.

    So getting out the vote among our clients and allies is obviously important. And being able to quantify the electoral impact of our work, and how it changes conversations about the issues we care about, is important in garnering the resources we’ll need to support its continuation. Absolutely.

    But we want more for those we have the honor to serve than a choice between candidate A and candidate B. We want them to be more than consumers–we see them and know them as stakeholders, capable of helping to build the kind of society we want for all of us.

    And that takes the kind of civic engagement that moves mountains.

    So we’d better be ready to measure how far they’ve come.

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