By Myung J. Lee and Peter Levine
Communities suffer when wide gaps exist between government and civil society—and between government officials and citizens (the term “citizen” is used here to define a person who is an inhabitant of a city without regard to his/her legal status). By engaging citizen volunteers as partners in defining and solving local problems—while also engaging local businesses—community leaders can narrow those gaps and advance the cause of civic renewal.
In cities and towns across the United States, municipal volunteer programs attract large numbers of citizens who commit time, passion, skill, and energy to community activities. In 2015, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 62.8 million Americans volunteered 7.9 billion hours of service. And according to data gathered by the US Census Bureau, 35 percent of Americans participate in at least one voluntary association. The vast scale of volunteering offers an important opportunity to increase the scope and impact of citizen engagement.
Volunteering on its own, however, does not necessarily produce better outcomes for a community. There are plenty of volunteer programs that help the volunteers feel good about themselves but not necessarily achieve outcomes that solve a public problem or improve relationships between citizens and their government. But a volunteer program that is led by the city holds the promise of enabling Americans to achieve a deeper and more consequential form of engagement.
By transforming traditional volunteering into what Cities of Service calls “impact volunteering,” civic leaders and citizens can lay the groundwork for improving community-level outcomes. In an impact volunteering effort, participants go beyond simply contributing hours of service to local projects. They also pursue the vital work of deliberation, collaboration, and connection.
Communicating about issues of shared concern (deliberation), working together to address those issues (collaboration), and forging effective and enduring relationships (connection) are all necessary for success, and, in an optimal case, reinforce one another. People gather in groups to decide what to do. Then they work in concert to implement that decision. As a result of these efforts, they form tight networks that support continued engagement – all the while producing concrete results that fuel their desire to take further action.
Civic relationships—voluntary ties among peers who share an interest in improving their community—along with cooperation with city agencies, nonprofit organizations, and corporations, are essential for building strong and healthy communities.
When people who are different from each other form civic relationships, they enlarge their understanding of public issues, learn to check their own values and assumptions against those of other people, and make themselves accountable to their fellow citizens. As a result, those communities achieve impressive outcomes in areas that range from education to environmental protection.
By treating citizens as partners, leaders can transform their volunteer programs into participatory processes in which citizens and public officials develop a shared vision, set long-term and short-term goals for their community, and then work together to pursue those goals. Ultimately, impact volunteering is not only about pursuing discrete projects but also about creating social capital and increasing social cohesion.
Measurement helps create impact volunteers
Two ingredients that help turn a conventional volunteering program into an impact volunteering program are the use of metrics and the active involvement of municipal government. A focus on metrics shifts the framework of volunteering from one in which volunteers garner praise simply because they do unpaid work (“it’s nice”) to one in which they work to achieve measurable results (“it’s necessary”). A commitment to tracking outcomes also promotes transparency and a sense of shared purpose.
Municipalities can and should play a leading role in citizen engagement. They have resources—expertise, access to data, legal authority, funding—that they can share with local groups and individuals. In addition, they have power to convene cross-sector gatherings where citizens can address matters of common concern.
The business sector has a unique role to play in this work because, in addition to providing volunteers, they also bring valuable expertise and experience that can help a city develop or implement an intervention that sets the community up for sustainable success.
Americans respond well to direct calls to participate in civic activities, but communities in the United States need to increase the scale and the quality of citizen engagement. Impact volunteering enables individuals from all sectors of the community to deliberate, collaborate, and connect—not only contributing hours of service but also taking part in planning and initiating civic improvements—allowing communities to transform those volunteers into engaged citizens and generating prosperity.
About the authors:
Myung J. Lee is executive director of Cities of Service, a national nonprofit organization that supports mayors and city chief executives in their efforts to engage local communities and residents to solve problems together. Myung has extensive nonprofit management and private-sector experience, and has previously served as a Deputy Commissioner with the City of New York Administration for Children’s Services and as a program officer and associate general counsel at the Corporation for National Service, where she helped to launch AmeriCorps. Myung received her juris doctorate from Georgetown Law and her bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Binghamton.
Peter Levine is Associate Dean for Research and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life. He studied philosophy at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. He is the author of We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America (Oxford University Press, 2013), five other scholarly books on philosophy and politics, and a novel.