Civic Season Chronicles, 2023: Growth, Collaboration, and Lessons for America’s 250th
This summer’s Civic Season — the third so far, since launching in 2021 — saw the most exciting groundswell of energy yet in this growing tradition. If you were part of it, as a hosting organization, a participant exploring the offerings, a first-timer or back again for more, you played an important role in driving this effort forward.
We have one goal: to use the time between Juneteenth and July 4th to discover our shared history, and our own story within it, to help us become more informed and engaged citizens. Think of it like an annual crash-course for the whole United States — but you can be outside, or on your phone, or with friends, or in shared spaces.
In this season, between dates that invite us to celebrate and reflect, that represent our nation’s promises and practices, our oldest and newest federal holidays — organizations unleash hundreds of new entry points for discovering a new skill, passion, resource or point of view to inform your journey as an active citizen. As a result, as we get closer to marking 250 years of the Declaration of Independence in 2026, we’re all showing up each summer a little bit savvier about “how we got here” and what each of us can do to shape the future.
This summer saw a variety of new approaches to serving younger people, from pizza parties to healing history to food drives. We leaned hard into customized journeys and personal growth, with a build-your-own itinerary feature and “The Story of You” Guidebook, and content like journal prompts, horoscopes and playlists. Communities creatively and wonderfully adapted the popular Civic Superpowers Quiz to reflect local stories and people, and teamed up with new collaborators.
The growth is great — and you’ll see that detailed in our full report below — but the lasting impact of Civic Season lies in the learning that we capture year-to-year, not just from one organization but from hundreds of communities trying new things together. Below the report, find our top takeaways that can inform the plans for the U.S. 250th commemoration and other youth, civics and history programming to come.
Civic Season 2023 Report
9 Key Takeaways from Civic Season 2023
1. Encourage “pluribus” — decentralize and atomize elements
Decentralize and atomize elements to invite broad participation. Local organizations know their communities and have a record of trust. Civic Season doesn’t need to look the same in Salt Lake City and Boston — its elements are easily adapted to local needs and current events. Whether using the framework of the Civic Superpowers Quiz to tell local or issue-specific stories, doing the Slice of History Pizza Parties but with different cuisine or activities, or sharing stickers, graphic elements, fonts and colors instead of top-down promotional images, Civic Season benefits from holding the brand loosely, encouraging a maximalist experience with a broad range of offerings to suit just about everyone. That’s the pluribus in e pluribus unum.
2. …but don’t forget the “unum” — have a clear focus or anchor.
The dates of Civic Season form a focused time to mobilize organizations. Though some communities add in Flag Day, Pride, or local holidays to make it their own, the core experience is a time-based, annual ritual that is sticky enough to remember and prepare for. This improves the public experience as well; you know Civic Season is coming and there’s a time-limited window to join in. The spirit of Civic Season may well continue all year, but the repeated ritual on an annual basis matters; the “season” is at the heart of the concept.
The unum has another benefit; it encourages collaboration and diminishes competition. For example, by having multiple organizations host pizza parties, we had the momentum to engage a group like Pizza to the Polls to sponsor the parties which in turn provide increased capacity of these organizations to serve their community.
3. Authentic growth requires two kinds of timing
There’s not really a shortcut to scaling a movement, no matter how sticky or resonant the idea. To put a spin on the classic investing advice: growth requires “time in the market” — exposure, outreach, trust, relationships — and “timing the market,” nimbly responding to current circumstances.
Even some of the best funded campaigns out there — hi Barbie! — rely on a decades-long consumer relationship and seizing the right cultural moment. The practice of listening, scanning and staying flexible to respond to varied needs is built into Civic Season’s adaptive structure; but building trust and relationships has come from high-touch, manual outreach and communications. Chances are, if you participated, you were in direct contact with someone on the Made By Us team. Perhaps our AI overlords will find a way to go faster in the future, but so far we’ve found the best success through slow, real, organic connections over time.
4. It’s easier to iterate than to pivot, and even easier in a group
Many organizations struggle to find capacity to evolve programming from one version to the next. It is easier to do the same thing every year, and sometimes changing the plan seems to dilute resources. But being able to nimbly respond to changing needs is essential to bringing in new audiences. One way is to plan for iteration, by piloting smaller versions (think skateboard) knowing you’ll evolve (think Lamborghini).
Take the Chicago History Museum, which began with a smaller scale program in 2022 and then took their learnings to expand in a major way, with internal and external program series and a whole host of external partners like artists and creators in 2023. Or the Wyoming State Museum, which piloted a community picnic in 2022, then started to plan earlier for 2023, got buy-in from more community partners and held multiple innovative events including a music festival and Gen Z pizza party.
Civic Season lets organizations practice this evolution in a supported environment — leaning on the larger movement to support new formats and tactics. You aren’t building alone or starting from scratch. This year, organizations that previously hosted successful events, like Wyoming State Museum, Monticello, Westport Museum for History & Culture, Revolutionary Spaces and Hawai’i Humanities Council, templated their events for others to use and adapt.
4. Personalization is a powerful on-ramp.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: on-ramps, on-ramps, on-ramps. To paraphrase Mean Girls: You can’t just ask people what their vision for America’s future is. (We did, that’s how we know). You can’t just throw people in the deep end of 1,200 activities while they’re going about their lives shopping for groceries or studying for exams. It’s better to meet people where they are, with entry points that matter in that moment. From the success of the Civic Superpowers Quiz, we had a hunch that tools to help YOU grow as an individual, that speak to your immediate personal journey, might appeal — and we affirmed this hypothesis with new features like a build-your-own itinerary and The Story of You Guidebook.
For the U.S. 250th anniversary, we imagine a successful user experience might follow a path like this:
5. Friends >>>>>
Knowing that there was a desire for Gen Z socializing in-person, we hosted “Slice of History” Pizza Party Meet-Ups to pilot a way to learn and connect locally. Community hosts got creative with programming and offered new events and late-night hours. And younger people enjoyed the chance to get into historic and cultural spaces after hours, the exclusive access and the informal aspect of pizza. But the real determinant for attendance seemed to be if you could get a friend to join you — and if nothing else, like traffic, work, or other plans interrupted your intentions.
Post-pandemic, event attendance is often a fraction of the RSVPs, especially for free events. Add to this that the average 18–27 year-old gets more than 200 mobile notifications a day, and the odds go up that something interrupts even the best-laid plans. In other words, attention is fickle and people keep their options open even after doing things that previously signaled commitment (registering for a ticket, telling a friend, putting it on a calendar). That’s why brands use retargeting, pixels and massive ad budgets; it takes multiple exposures (and TIME! and trust!) to generate follow-through. Hosts can increase the social cost of backing out and reduce friction for showing up. To speak like Kendall Roy: it’s social, local, mobile, baby. Can you get attendees to register with a friend, so they’ll both be more likely to come? Can you offer exclusive access that is not available at another time? Can you ensure your event is easy to get to, fits into the day’s other activities in town, and the info easily found, used and shared on mobile?
6. Aesthetics matter…
Ask any Gen Z-er. Aesthetics are closely tied to self-expression and identity. And anyone, but especially younger people, can sniff out if an initiative is perceived to be “educational,” corporate or trying too hard. Often, programs have a rather neutral aesthetic, but one that doesn’t meet the bar of something you’d actually want to be a part of or share with others.
Civic Season brings a punchy, inviting through-line in the design and aesthetic. Citizen Best designed the original website and guidebook (recently honored at SF Design Week!) with great intent and an eye for Gen Z’s nostalgic, maximalist style — and it was co-designed with the user base. The aesthetic is continually the top item praised about Civic Season.
7. …but young people look under the hood, too
The top page visited on the Civic Season website, after the homepage? ABOUT. Visitors look to find out what this thing is, who’s behind it, and whether it’s trustworthy. 68% of Gen Z consumers read or watch at least three reviews before a first-time purchase. Organizations can help themselves with clear descriptors of who and what is behind their work, their mission, testimonials and word-of-mouth vouching.
One way to do this is via strategic partnerships that bring your movement into established communities. We worked with Autio to bring historic sites to life for the road-trip-audio crowd. Challah Back Girls embraced Civic Season on the heels of Jewish American Heritage Month, encouraging civic learning and action with postcards in every bread order. ActiVote reminded their app users that Civic Season was underway, a time to study up on history and civics.
8. Shared leadership is the way.
It should be obvious from our track record that we believe in designing with younger people, not for them; creating an experience meaningful for younger generations requires centering them throughout the process. Our second cohort of Civic Season Design Fellows were key to decision-making and brought creativity — and reality — to bear on the program. New this year, we added an advisory board of fabulous history museum staff who helped shape the program and ensure we offered the right tools, materials and guidance to mobilize and coordinate participating organizations.
In addition, Civic Season comes to life through networks and nodes of influence that carry it out to more people and communities by making it their own. This is more than just decentralized; it’s truly shared, since it generates a collective benefit, a tidal wave of interest and momentum all together. We hope that the champions from other sectors, staff and volunteers at organizations, board members, donors, team members, interns, brands, media, writers, creators, and enthusaists alike can all take credit for, and pride in, what we’re building together. Put it on your resume; write a grant for it; create content; create a product. This rising tide lifts all boats.
There’s no limit to how far we can go together, if we each feel a sense of ownership and take responsibility — and credit! — for building it up.
Hmm. Kind of like our country itself.
9. Looking ahead, it starts with belonging.
New data this summer reveals that Gen Z possesses record-low levels of patriotism and pride in being American. This is a departure from older generations, but it also signals caution to those of us working in civic engagement and especially the U.S. 250th commemoration. If people feel disconnected from their country, or define pride or patriotism differently than those who are leading institutions or planning big national moments, then we have a gap in understanding and communication that can lead to further disengagement or disillusionment. On top of that, America’s 250th will compete with the World Cup, news, politics, entertainment and more knowns and unknowns. How likely is it to resonate with Gen Z?
We see a future where the U.S. 250th is a catalyst for the future, but to get there, we must have intention around the individual’s experience, building up belonging and connection first before inviting action or participation.
Like with growth, there’s really no shortcut to cultivating belonging. But one of the most powerful tools we have, and one of the reasons Made By Us is anchored on history, is narrative. Our stories show us that our communities, our country, the world, are shaped by people showing up to participate every day. No one else is coming to help; we are the ones we have been waiting for. But people must feel supported and empowered to take on that role. An annual tradition of self-improvement and civic engagement every year — normalizing learning, growth, and evolving ideas — is one way to start.
Again, thanks for being part of this journey and contributing to the collective learning and growth. While we can’t capture all of the incredible participation and creative programming from this year in one blog, we invite you to share your reflections, photos and experiences on the living Civic Season zine for posterity and shared learning.
The 2023 Civic Season was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Mellon Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Our Common Purpose Initiative, The Coca-Cola Company, AMERICAN HERITAGE Chocolate, the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, the Arthur Blank Family Foundation and individual donors, supporters, creatives and movement-builders.