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People-powered civic engagement

When we think about people-powered civic engagement, our beliefs and strategy are really about how people build and then express power to change behaviors and make a difference in the world. Let’s unpack that!

Build power

It is going to take a broad, diverse group of people and organizations to fix what is so profoundly broken in American democracy right now. And those people and organizations are going to need to be powerful.

In the most straightforward sense, power is just the ability to do work over time. But said another way, it’s the ability to exert influence (or potential influence) by organizing others.

To this end, we want to equip issue advocates and community organizers with the data and tools power civic participation for a more equitable future.

Here are examples of the inputs necessary to build power around an issue:

  • People might get educated and make like-minded friends within their communities.

  • People and organizations might together establish credibility around an issue through data and compelling stories.

  • Organizations might earn grants, create partnerships, raise donations from high-net-worth individuals, raise small-dollar donations, or recruit people as supporters.

Express power

To understand the ways people express their power, we need to be able to measure the richness of civic life.

Civic participation isn’t just one thing. It isn’t just voting. It isn’t just donating to a cause you care about. It isn’t just volunteering in your community. It’s all of these actions, plus countless others, that keep our society running at national, state, and local levels.

Here are examples of the outputs from civic participation:

  • People might express their individual power by talking to other people on the phone, via SMS, or at their front door.

  • People and organizations might post or share content on social media, run paid media ads, or send letters or emails to elected officials.

  • Organizations might make endorsements or grants, formalize alliances, or convene partners to generate media attention.

Power is often expressed through direct action, through protesting, through door-knocking, through voting, through boycotting, and through many other actions. And while that might seem like a lot of levers to pull, in fact, as citizens, groups and organizations, there are a limited set of ways we can express power.

This is why it is so critical that we conduct experiments and get into the field to learn what actually works.

Change behavior

The expression of power is always in service of an outcome. The outcome for issue advocates and community organizers is to change behavior.

The changed behavior might be building people’s literacy in a particular issue or shifting opinion on a tightly-held view.

Of course there are many more possible outcomes like getting people to vote for or against something or getting public officeholders or corporate or philanthropic leaders to enact policies. But behavior change is always in service of something.

Drive positive impact

Helm's mission is to power civic participation for a more equitable future. In most cases it takes years, if not decades, to see the impact of certain interventions, elections, legislation, and so forth.

So, we will have to wait to measure some of the impact of our customers' work.

However, the wait presents an opportunity for rigorous experimentation around the relationship between actions (expression of power) and outcomes (behavior change) that culminate in impact.

As we identify and establish these intermediary relationships, we hope to track known predictors of changes in equitability and zero-in on the near-term tactics and strategies that advance equitability While the idea of people-powered civic engagement is not new, when we think about the democratic experiment that defines the United States, we know that full civic participation has never been realized.

There have always been people in our communities who take action, who step up to lead, and who use their voice. But there are many more who do not.

And there are many who are systemically blocked from participating.

So what happens when everyone can civically engaged? What do you think?

Share with us
  • What behaviors drive the outcomes you care about?

  • How have you tried to change behavior? Have your tactics ever not had the desired outcome, if so what can we learn from those?

  • Who is someone who inspires you with the way they express their power? Who do you think is pioneering in these areas?

  • What is standing in the way of driving measurable change?

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