What is Civic Engagement Anyway? A Primer from PACE

A new conversation about civic engagement is emerging. Against the backdrop of rapidly changing social and political upheaval, Americans are feeling a call to take a more active role in our democracy. This swelling interest and urgency has been increasingly felt among the constellation of organizations devoted to the public good. And at Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) — a network of funders committed to civic engagement and democracy — we’ve felt this shift firsthand.

As funders examine the most effective means to heal our nation’s civic fabric, many of them have found their way to square one: meaningfully engaging our citizenry in America’s democratic process. As far as first steps go, we couldn’t agree more. But civic engagement is a multifaceted, amorphous idea — a field with as many definitions as diverse participants. And while many funders are considering investing in civic engagement for the first time, even experienced funders are finding themselves asking: what does civic engagement really look like? How might it relate to my work? And, how do I get started?

To be clear: we don’t have all the answers. This political moment is nuanced and complex in ways many of us are only beginning to understand. But with the depth of experience in civic engagement and philanthropy in our network, we do know a few important things — and it’s with this expertise that we created a tool to support funders in focusing in on the potential value of utilizing civic engagement to heal the fractures in our communities and in our democracy. It’s called the Civic Engagement Primer, or #PACEprimer for short.

We begin by offering our working definition of civic engagement, which takes a wide-angle lens on the vast spectrum of activities our field encompasses. For us, civic engagement is the process of helping people be active participants in building and strengthening their communities, whether you define “community” as a place or a shared identity or interest.” This definition comprises the spectrum of ways people can participate in self-governance, from interactions with government to voluntary associations and everything in between.

Associated with this work as well, is a core set of values — like community, trust, transparency, and participation. There is also power in the pragmatic approaches civic engagement can foster, which have the ability to bridge many of the deep fractures that have brought us to this crucial moment. We included these values in the primer because PACE believes that civic engagement is, at it’s core, about helping Americans — all Americans — be a part of America. And that is a vision that can, and should, take many forms, as long as they are led with and informed by a core set of values driving toward the common good.

The primer goes on to outline the various ways funders can approach civic engagement work — whether as a means to achieve broader programmatic goals, or as a means unto itself. Finally, the tool outlines the multitude of activities we consider a part of the diverse civic engagement portfolio — from volunteering to advocacy, and charitable giving to civic learning.

After making your way through the primer, we hope you will: have a foundational understanding of civic engagement philanthropy and possess a stronger sense of whether pursuing civic engagement philanthropy might be right for you/your organization.

As part of the primer, we’ve also created three downloadable handouts, illustrating: the variety of activities on the civic engagement spectrum, the various approaches funders can take in investing in this work, and even the definition of civic engagement, which we hope you can use to continue these important conversations with your colleagues.

This tool — and our work — is inspired by a core idea: that our democracy will be healthier, more successful, more resilient, and more productive, if the office of citizen is treated as central to how it functions. We hope this the primer serves to support you in taking the next step on your civic engagement journey — and we look forward to working alongside you as it continues.