Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research

Nonprofits and the Promotion of Civic Engagement: A Conceptual Framework for Understanding the "Civic Footprint" of Nonprofits within Local Communities

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research

Nonprofits and the Promotion of Civic Engagement: A Conceptual Framework for Understanding the "Civic Footprint" of Nonprofits within Local Communities

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Scholars have long theorized about the variety of civic benefits produced by nonprofit organizations in their efforts to promote civic engagement within local communities. For instance, some have proposed that nonprofits promote civic action by encouraging community involvement and maintaining democratic functioning (Milligan & Conradson, 2006; Putnam, 1993, 2000). Others have suggested that nonprofits enhance the civic conditions of communities by fulfilling demands overlooked by government (Weisbrod, 1986) and by ameliorating the failures of the private market (Hansmann, 1980). Still others have argued that nonprofits add to the civic value of communities by providing an outlet for services where stakeholders, such as consumers and producers, can have a voice (Ben-Ner & Van Hoomissen, 1992) and undertake religious and secular entrepreneurial initiatives (James, 1987).

Missing from most of this previous scholarship, however, are descriptions of the specific actions undertaken by nonprofits that aid in the promotion of civic engagement. Indeed, although scholars have generally found that the civic contributions of nonprofits are positively linked to the establishment of stronger interpersonal networks among residents (Katz, 1993; Putnam, 1993, 2000), increased civic participation (Putnam, 1993, 2000), and even perceptions about the quality of local government (Brown, 1998; Van Slyke & Roch, 2004; Wuthnow, 2004), this scholarship does not enhance our understanding of what it is that these organizations do to attain such positive outcomes. To foster the behaviour of civic engagement, it is necessary to first understand what that behaviour involves. The purpose of this research is to understand the specific actions undertaken by nonprofit organizations that promote civic engagement within local communities. To delineate these processes, we conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with nonprofit administrators from a small U.S. Midwestern town. We then developed a conceptual framework outlining the ways that nonprofits collectively influence local community engagement by utilizing a "civic footprint" metaphor to answer our research question: What do nonprofits do to promote civic engagement within local communities? We utilize the "civic footprint" as a way to represent the variety of tangible ways that nonprofits add to the civic life of communities.

LITERATURE REVIEW AND CONCEPTUAL BACKGROUND

The civic benefits provided by a social entity (such as a nonprofit organization) are often distinct from economic or social benefits. Specifically, civic benefits are those that enhance individual and collective actions intended to further the public good. These actions can strengthen the connection between citizens and community by providing many goods and services that have public good characteristics and that involve members of the community as donors or volunteers (Ben-Ner & Van Hoomissen, 1992; Hansmann, 1980; James, 1987; Milligan & Conradson, 2006; Putnam, 1993, 2000; Weisbrod, 1986). Ultimately these actions lead to active participation in community life and the development of greater social ties and trust through civic engagement. Therefore, civic engagement simply refers to the act in which individuals come together for the common benefit of society (Schneider, 2007). More specifically, civic engagement has been defined as the multitude of ways that citizens participate in their communities in order to 1) shape the future of their community and 2) improve the conditions of other community members (Adler & Goggin, 2005). Therefore, this present study, following Alder & Goggin (2005), was particularly interested in better understanding the specific ways in which nonprofits support civic engagement in these two areas.

A great deal of literature has focused on the relationship between individual-level characteristics and the implications of these characteristics for civic engagement (Omoto, Snyder, & Hackett, 2010) and individual development (Flanagan & Levine, 2010). …

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