People-powered Civic Engagement

In its simplest form, when we think about people-powered civic engagement, our beliefs and strategy is really about how people build and then express power in service of changing behavior to create impact in the world. Let’s unpack that! Building 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 they’re 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 people with tools to organize in service of advancing equitability. Here we define the inputs necessary to build power around an issue. For example:

  • 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, or

  • organizations might get grants, create partnerships, raise donations from high networth individuals, raise small-dollar donations, or recruit people as supporters.

Expressing Power To understand the ways people express their power, we need to be able to measure the richness of civic life. Civic life 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 both national and local levels. Here we define the outputs from engaging in civic life that result in the expression of power around an issue. For example:

  • 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, or

  • an organization 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, with the goal of understanding which tactics are most effective in which environments. Change Behavior The expression of power is always in service of an outcome. In our case, the outcome we want is to change behavior. In this sense, the desired outcome might be building people’s literacy in a particular issue or you could seek to shift opinion which requires changing either a tightly or loosely held view. Of course there are many more possible outcomes that require behavior change: getting people to vote for or against something, getting public officeholders or corporate or philanthropic leaders to enact policies, or to provide services to a community. But behavior change is always in service of something. For us, it is in service of creating impact. Create Impact At Helm, our goal is not merely to enable our customers to achieve outcomes but to help them actually measure impact in the long-term. The impact we care about is making the world more equitable. Critically, increasing equitability in meaningful ways takes a long time. In most cases it takes years, if not, decades and generations to see the impact of certain interventions, elections, legislation, and so forth. As such we will necessarily have to wait to capture some of the impact of our work. However, this periodicity problem 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 will be able 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 our country, we know that full 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. So what happens when everyone is actively engaged? What do you think? That’s exactly what we are setting out to understand and make possible. 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?

Sarah Stamper, PhD, is the SVP of Science & Innovation at Helm.