Magazine article Stanford Social Innovation Review

What Makes Civic Associations Work

Magazine article Stanford Social Innovation Review

What Makes Civic Associations Work

Article excerpt

CIVIL SOCIETY

When Robert Putnam accused America of "Bowling Alone," the Sierra Club responded by bowling together - or, at least by wearing bowling T-shirts while they subjected themselves to a research study on what makes civic associations work. With 62 regional chapters and 343 local groups, the Sierra Club is an ideal laboratory. "Are some of these groups more vibrant than others, and if so, why?" asked Kenneth Andrews, associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The usual answer would be that it's the context of the organization that matters - if you know something about where a group is working, you have a good handle on whether or not it's going to be successful. But Andrews, along with Marshall Ganz of Harvard University, who co-led the 2003 study, also sought to identify what organizations actually do to make a difference. They conducted extensive interviews and surveys of every group and chapter of the Sierra Club, gathering information about each one, the communities in which they are based, and the leaders directing them.

Good leadership at the local level had a more profound effect than any external factor. "How the leaders of civic associations organize themselves to carry out their work makes a big difference for their own experience and learning, for how well they're able to engage the members of the organization, and for how visible the organization can be in the community," says Andrews. What makes a civic association effective is not so much the resources and opportunities available to it, but the leader's ability to make the most of those resources and opportunities. …

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