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What is civic engagement? How to Create Community Volunteer Opportunities

What is civic engagement?

Civic engagement is exactly what it sounds like—people, either individually or in groups, participating in the life of the community. 

Of course, it is slightly more than just that; it's "working to make a difference in the civic life of one's community and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes," according to  But what exactly does a civic engagement look like?

Civic engagement is typically seen as a form of activism—environmental, community, and political. Volunteering is another form of civic engagement, as is national service and service learning. The general idea of civic engagement is remarkably similar to the philosophy of volunteering: taking part in activities that improve the local community, or focus on global social issues. Volunteering isn't just about working with a non-profit or a corporate project, it's also about advocacy and activism. Volunteers are often on the front lines of addressing societal issues, which is absolutely a form of civic engagement. 

How civic engagement differs from volunteering

Volunteers in the community engage in activities that range from registering voters to working on homes for Habitat for Humanity to teaching in a church's Vacation Bible School.

What is civic engagement in relation to volunteering? Most people think of volunteering as being a friendly, and non controversial activity. Civic engagement, on the other hand, is a bit more focused on challenging the status quo, and if that means creating controversy, the idea is that the ends typically justify the means.

When you're involved with fighting homelessness, food insecurity, human trafficking, or any difficult social issues, your team needs a to build a very specific and deep skill set to adequately tackle these issues. 

Of course, not all civic engagement is protests and sit-ins; building community gardens, working in food banks, and volunteering in homeless shelters are all examples of civic engagement. 

What are civic engagement examples

Another way that civic engagement differs from volunteering is that people participate civically in an informal way every day. If you're wondering about how to be a better citizen and what are civic engagement activities, here are a couple—voting is a big part, and so are the small things like recycling and taking dead batteries to the landfill.

What is an example of civic engagement? Voting, for instance—simply participating in democracy. Working for candidates is also a civic engagement, as is being a poll worker.

What is the importance of civic engagement? Research shows that people who get out in the community and participate in group activities are healthier and happier than those who don't—kids who play in local rec sports leagues, or adults who play pickup basketball at the Y are engaged in the community in a positive way. 

What are some civic engagement examples?

  • Voting in Presidential or local elections
  • Signing petitions that align with your values
  • Donating money to an organization, such as a church, PTA, or Red Cross
  • Boycotting a company whose values are out of sync with your own
  • Changing buying habits to support a company whose values do align with your own
  • Donating or volunteering to a political campaign
  • Attending a local government meeting

Building social capital through civic engagement

Social capital—the value derived from positive connections between people— is at the heart of civic engagement, and in large part of volunteering. The people involved in any community activities develop relationships and reputations within those groups, and within the community served, that allow the groups to function efficiently and effectively. There are three basic types of social capital: Relational, Cognitive, and Structural. 

  • Relational capital is just that—the connections people make with others in their various spheres
  • Cognitive capital is the experience and knowledge people have to share with others in their environments
  • Structural capital is a person's intellect and processes—basically, how they think and solve problems.

What is civic engagement in relation to social capital? Civic engagement fosters overall improved health and social capital is in the building of networks and social trust that are the hallmarks of cooperation for a mutual and societal benefit. Once a person is involved in one group, that often expands to a greater awareness of other opportunities to join other organizations. The result is that civic engagement helps people develop a sense of purpose, which in turn means they are likely to stay involved. 

Civic engagement and volunteer opportunities

A civic engagement activity is any activity that aims for the betterment of the community.

The gold standard for civic engagement is probably Habitat for Humanity. With the mission that affordable housing is a linchpin for a stable community, Habitat is a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization that helps low-income families get into a home of their own. Habitat is former President Jimmy Carter's legacy, having helped over 30 million people build or renovate a home through grants, sweat equity, and first-time homebuyer loan programs. 

The impact of  community civic engagement 

Volunteering is the traditional way for people to engage in the community, and speaks to what is the importance of civic engagement. Volunteering has many faces, but research indicates that volunteers are also healthier than non-volunteers. Your team has better mental health and feelings of well-being, and more positive emotional health, than their non-volunteering peers. As we stated above, volunteers build social capital and a network of colleagues that often becomes friends—so they have more people to rely on. 

Volunteers also have lower levels of anxiety and depression–one study even found that volunteering reduces stress. 

For retired and older citizens, volunteering can have all of the above positive effects, as well as a lower risk of cognitive decline. 

What is youth civic engagement

Researchers at Tufts University define youth civic engagement as encompassing politics, education, media, nonprofits, and any other influences that impact a young person's activities in the life of the community.

Savvy volunteer leaders are always searching for ways to involve young people in the community. The earlier a student is exposed to volunteering and civic engagement, the more likely they are to make it a lifelong habit. Social engagement is practically a necessity on college applications, and college students with volunteer experience have a much higher chance of landing a job–like 82% higher. 

What is youth civic engagement? things like scouting, playing in Little League or rec teams, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or registering to vote—in short, practicing to be good citizens. 




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