What we can learn from ‘The State of Global Civic Engagement’

May 11, 2022

This piece was originally published in Philanthropy News Digest.

For nearly two and a half years, we’ve shared one collective experience around the world. And while most of us are ready to leave behind the years of fear, uncertainty, and loss, we should think twice before rushing to get back to our “old lives,” and for good reason.

History tells us that pandemics and other crises can be catalysts for rebuilding society in new and better ways. If we seek to get back to our old ways, we—especially in the nonprofit sector—are missing an opportunity to take this historic moment to address the fractured systems and stark inequities the global pandemic has exposed, exacerbated, and solidified. We cannot be “done” when there is still so much to do.

At Points of Light, we’ve been shining a light on the organizations and individuals serving as those catalysts for rebuilding society. We continue to uplift hundreds of stories of light so those changemakers who have taken action, supported their communities, and made each day just a little better for others can inspire a movement.

Beyond sharing stories, we also need to take this opportunity to meaningfully study the nonprofit sector and determine how organizations can make an impact amid this “new normal.” We’ve been asking ourselves: Who is taking action? In what ways are they engaging and on behalf of which social issues? And for those who are not engaging, why not?

Points of Light just released Civic Life Today: The State of Global Civic Engagement, a series of five in-depth reports that provide insight into the attitudes and behaviors of individuals and the barriers they face—globally and across the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and India—to help us begin to answer these questions. Here are some of the key findings from our research:

Engagement is changing.

The studies examined the top civic actions taken in support of a social issue as defined by the engagement framework of Points of Light’s Civic Circle: donating, listening and learning, using your purchasing power, service, social entrepreneurship, using your voice, volunteering, voting, and doing good through  work. In the global survey, using one’s voice through the posting or sharing of content on a social media platform and listening and learning were the top two civic actions taken. These actions are important because they have low barriers to entry and are more accessible to different segments of the population, yet they can prove just as influential as traditional actions such as volunteering or donating.

The takeaway isn’t to replace one with the other but to embrace these new forms of engagement and the people who use them. The challenge we must collectively take up is to open and expand access to pathways of more direct engagement.

Now, the next part of the conversation needs to address how people are using these actions in tandem. And our research reinforces that taking a number of civic actions together can increase impact and effectiveness.

This may be an area where companies can set an example. How are companies not only speaking up about social issues but also demonstrating their efforts to listen to the communities they aim to support and sharing what they learn with their employees, consumers, and peers?

Address the perception of privilege.

Globally, survey respondents listed finances as the largest barrier to engagement: Two of the top three reasons people gave for not engaging in social issues were “unable to financially support social issues causes in general” (more than one in five respondents) and “unable to financially support causes due to negative effects of pandemic” (nearly one in five). This finding indicates a need for organizations to educate potential constituents and create additional pathways to participation beyond making donations.

The misconception that supporting social causes requires money is a barrier that we have to overcome in order to ensure that we are valuing and tapping into what each individual has to contribute to their community and the causes they care about.

How can social sector leaders help signal that easily accessible civic actions like using one’s voice and listening and learning are particularly important? One idea is for nonprofits to highlight their greatest unpaid social media amplifiers alongside their donors in annual reports. Who has helped bring the most attention to your cause?

Challenge inertia.

Newton’s first law of motion says: An object in motion will stay in motion, and an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.

Our research indicates that this phenomenon exists within civic engagement as well. Individuals already engaging in certain civic actions are the ones most likely to continue taking those actions. For example, 91 percent of the individuals who said they would volunteer over the next 30 days were the same people who had volunteered in the previous 30 days. This is an indicator that we are simply maintaining the volunteer force instead of growing it.

While maintenance is important, how can we put more people in motion on behalf of social good? We know that the most common reason someone volunteers is that they are asked. When was the last time you invited someone to volunteer with you?

Bridge individual change to systems change.

Systems are reinforced or dismantled one decision at a time. The journey of systems change starts with the individual, but it requires organizations everywhere to help people participate in the transformation of policies, to be included in the power dynamics, to evolve social norms, and to strengthen the civic mindset of this country and the world at large.

Our research underscored that people are looking to companies for leadership, with 82 percent of global respondents and 95 percent of respondents in India expecting companies to address the social issues in their country.

What we conclude from our research is that nonprofits can do more to provide opportunities for engagement, particularly ensuring new and more accessible pathways of entry into civic action. How can nonprofits and companies seek meaningful partnerships to engage employees and consumers, extend reach, and expand impact?

So much change in our world today can be directly translated into a wealth of opportunity, specifically how the social and nonprofit sector operates in this new normal. To meet this moment and engage the people who are critical for us to make an impact on our respective missions, we can’t wait for society to return to what it was. Instead, we must address these new challenges head on so that we can shine a light on tomorrow.

Natalye Paquin, President & CEO, Points of Light

Natalye Paquin was the president and chief executive officer of Points of Light from 2017–2022. She is a visionary and results-oriented leader, with more than 20 years of experience providing strategic, operations and fiscal leadership in the nonprofit and public sectors.

Natalye Paquin