Lauren Speeth likes solving big, complicated problems. She was once a systems analyst and computer programmer. Now she runs Elfenworks, a nonprofit and philanthropic organization that each year identifies and awards individuals and groups that have developed their own unique, consequential way to contribute to society. She says that early on in her foray into civics and volunteerism, she got some advice from Jimmy Carter on how service can contribute to change.
Using the former president's guidelines, here are what she describes as the basic tenets of a good service organization: "Your vision matters. Use your special skills. Be non-duplicative. Just because there's a soup kitchen in your neighborhood, don't open one next door. Work in partnership with others. Share the credit. Gather feedback. Have some staying power. Stay the course."
Speeth is one of several service and civic-engagement experts interviewed by National Journal to learn how nonprofits and citizens groups can do the most to promote civic engagement in their communities. The themes she outlined from Carter were echoed by the others as best practices. They all say that partnerships, feedback, measured progress, and staying power are critically important in tackling the problem, whatever it is.
The best civic groups are the ones that welcome and recruit people with a range of experiences. Civic engagement is actually pretty common in the United States, if you look in the right places. But, particularly with the advent of social media, those communities run the risk of becoming insular and closed off to other viewpoints. "I think we still have to recruit diverse people into public life, whether they want to or not, and put them together with different people," said Peter Levine, a civics professor at Tufts University. He also runs CIRCLE, which advocates for greater civic engagement from young people.
There are thousands of big and small community organizations that are working on such goals as curbing violence or providing health care or educating the kids in their neighborhood or simply maintaining a local park. After reviewing dozens of admirable programs, here are the 10 we believe are promoting citizen engagement in the most innovative ways across America.
Generation Citizen: The presence of college students in a classroom is the novelty that makes Generation Citizen special. It is a nonprofit that sends college volunteers into high schools and middle schools to facilitate a semester of on-the-ground civic activity. Teenagers love that they get to hang out with college students. Many of the college mentors, called Democracy Coaches, are still teenagers. The high school students get to see what it's like for a person not too different from them to struggle, and even fail, when running a classroom.
No Generation Citizen class is ever the same, because each group of students selects a local problem to study and then puts together an action plan to address it. The issues range from bullying to public housing to unemployment to public transit, but the Generation Citizen curriculum has built-in steps for everyone. Spell out the root cause. Create a specific goal to target that root cause. Identify the people with the power to carry out the goal. Figure out the best tactics for influencing those people. Find allies.
See National Journal's in-depth profile of Generation Citizen here.
Cure Violence: A nonprofit founded in 1995 by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, Cure Violence applies the tenets of disease eradication to reducing shootings and homicides. Slutkin's premise is that violence clusters and spreads like a virus, and it can be stopped the same way an epidemic is stopped—by intervening at the source, reducing risk for those at highest risk, and changing community norms. The group sees incidents of violence much the same as cases of HIV, tuberculosis, or even Ebola are viewed. Violence spreads when people are infected with it. It stops when those exposed to it stop infecting others.
Cure Violence takes a targeted, almost clinical approach to reducing shootings, assaults, and homicides. It aims its interventions at the worst places, and it is one of the few organizations that actively recruits ex-convicts for employment (after a careful vetting process). Only the neighborhoods with the highest violent crime rates qualify for grants, and even then, public-health workers won't attempt to make inroads unless a service organization within that community steps up and agrees to host the Cure Violence program. The model depends on community buy-in for its success, a factor that political scientists say is the most important component of any type of civic engagement. Cure Violence's methods are designed to turn violent neighborhoods inside out by recruiting their own residents to make the initial turnaround efforts.
See National Journal's in-depth profile of Cure Violence here.
Tumml: Clara Brenner and Julie Lein, cofounders of a two-year-old "business accelerator" known as Tumml, aren't dreaming of launching the next Facebook or Uber. The two young women have a different goal: supporting a new generation of "urban impact start-ups" that aim to tackle civic problems, while turning a profit along the way. Their firm provides funding, mentoring, and practical guidance for start-ups that look to address challenges from education to transportation to boosting local small businesses.
Since summer 2013, they have selected three groups of young companies (some 17 in all) from hundreds of applicants based everywhere from Kansas City to France and Germany. For each firm that makes the cut, Tumml provides some initial funding, a place to work, access to mentors, a curriculum that offers guidance on the usual challenges of business formation—and, most distinctive of all, opportunities to interact with local government and nonprofit leaders working on the same issues that the entrepreneurs are tackling.
See National Journal's in-depth profile of Tumml here.
Seattle and King County Department of Health Access and Outreach: Daphne Pie has assembled an army of some two dozen community leaders to make sure underserved populations in her county get enrolled in the Affordable Care Act. She is the manager of access and outreach at the public-health department for Seattle and King County. One of her partners is Bridgette Richardson Hempstead, an African-American breast-cancer survivor who runs Cierra Sisters, a cancer-advocacy group for black women. Others in Pie's army include organizers from the Open Arms Perinatal Doula Program—which is deeply rooted in Seattle's Latina and Somali communities; the Gay City health project; and the Asian Counseling and Referral Service.
So for every niche population that shows higher-than-average uninsured rates, Pie's team has identified a trusted leader within that community to carry its message: You can have health insurance for free or at very low cost. There is no mention of political lightning rods like "Obamacare" or Medicaid. The community leaders are free to highlight their groups' unique concerns about health coverage to pique interest. For Latina women, it might be natural childbirth. For the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, it might be HIV treatment or even the unresolved question of whether insurance companies should cover sex-change hormone therapy.
See National Journal's in-depth profile of King County's health care enrollment efforts here.
The Mission Continues: The fundamental philosophy of the Mission Continues is that community service fosters relationships, which in turn foster a sense of purpose and eventually, professional contacts and employment. This is something that many returning war veterans badly need as they attempt to integrate into a civilian society. Many of them say they feel lost in and disconnected from the world around them, unable to translate their military skills into something an employer might want.
The Mission Continues was founded by Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL. The group helps post-9/11 veterans figure out how to live in the civilian world and reconnect with the workforce. It offers paid fellowships to these veterans to work at nonprofit organizations of their choice. One veteran described his application as "my Hail Mary." The process is rigorous. A veteran must find a nonprofit where he or she can volunteer on a substantive project, 20 hours a week for six months. Then there is a round of interviews in which the paid fellows are selected. The competition is tough, but fellows who have won say the experience has given them an invaluable entrée into their communities and the workplace. Many of them started their own nonprofits when the fellowship was over.
ServiceWorks: Citi Foundation COO Brandee McHale calls ServiceWorks a jobs program in disguise. A joint project with AmeriCorps and Points of Light, the program uses volunteer service as a way to transition low-income young adults into jobs. "How do we really help prepare young people for the 21st-century workforce? The road map to success looks very different from prior generations," she said. "In civic-engagement projects, you build leadership skills, you build workplace skills."
ServiceWorks, which launched in September, has partnered with local civic organizations in 10 cities. Those organizations are recruiting high-school-age kids who will develop their own community projects, present those ideas to community leaders, and implement them. Sticking with a project from start to finish will help participants develop entrepreneurial leadership skills that employers often seek in job candidates, McHale says. Moreover, the kids will realize they actually have the power to make a tangible change in their own communities.
Boston's CitizensConnect: Nigel Jacob, cochair of the Boston office of New Urban Mechanics, has an idea for how he wants residents to think about their home—DIY City. He believes that a city's residents are a local government's best source for what needs to be fixed and where, but they need to be empowered to do so. He developed the CitizensConnect app to make it easy for residents to be the city's "eyes and ears." With a snapshot and click on their smartphones, they can alert the city to potholes, damaged street signs, and graffiti.
Jacob was keenly aware that he needed to develop the trust of the users for the system to work, so he and his team made sure the city's call center was up to speed before launching the digital version. Now, reported cases go directly into the city's work-order queue for resolution, and users are informed how quickly the case will be closed. "Technology has always been used in a top-down way," he says. "The idea was to flip it to focus on the experience residents had when they need these technologies."
New ways for citizens to connect with their local governments can profoundly alter what is generally thought of as a one-way relationship of government-to-resident to a two-way interaction in which everyone feels responsible for the basic functions of a city, from trash cleanup to prioritizing infrastructure investments. Jacob wrote for CNN that "these innovations represent the experimental wing of modern politics and government." He and his team are just getting started. They are researching another app that will use motion-acceleration detection to trace potholes. "This is a new kind of voluntarism," says Jacob, who is now helping to bring these insights to other cities, including Philadelphia.
San Francisco's Entrepreneurship in Residence Program: San Francisco has established a series of programs that allow civic-minded entrepreneurs to work inside City Hall to develop solutions to what city leaders call its "pain points." Its most ambitious program is Entrepreneurship in Residence, in which six winners are chosen from about 200 start-up applicants. They are given access to the city's departments and data that they use to create products and services aimed at solving a particular problem. One winner developed technology to help blind and disabled travelers move through the city's airport.
In a similar effort, San Francisco also has a program in which city employees identify specific management or operational challenges and then allow companies such as Google, McKinsey, or LinkedIn to devote pro bono time to resolving them. The city has committed to make basic city data widely available, in the hope that it will inspire private innovators to develop programs relevant to the challenges.
City Year: This group was part of the inspiration for President Clinton to create AmeriCorps, the domestic version of the Peace Corps for young adults looking to spend a year volunteering. City Year wants to ensure that high school graduation isn't considered optional in low-income schools where traditional resources can't always provide students the extra help they need to achieve academically. To help close the gap, about 2,700 City Year AmeriCorps members spend a year in low-income and disadvantaged schools helping teachers, tutoring, mentoring, and creating comprehensive after-school programs.
City Year's cofounder and CEO Michael Brown also has another goal. He wants to change the culture of service in the United States by making it a standard expectation of all young people, rather than something for only a few. Few programs have demonstrated as powerfully as City Year how America could benefit if that occurred.
Remote Area Medical: Stan Brock is an amateur Amazon bush pilot, a black belt in tae kwon do, and an Emmy Award winner for his work with animals on TV shows like Wild Kingdom. He founded Remote Area Medical in 1985 to provide health care to rural areas that lack health options. The inspiration for the organization came when he suffered an injury in Guyana and the nearest health facility was 26 miles away.
Now, people line up for mobile RAM clinics across the United States, which offer basic medical and dental services and, occasionally, veterinary care. The program depends on volunteers—from licensed doctors and nurses to general volunteers who help with registration and patient customer service. It also offers materials and guidance for communities to set up their own "host groups" that will spend up to a year planning for a mobile clinic in their towns. Fidel Pinote, a leader of one such host group in Columbia, Tenn., says his community of Filipinos who organized one such clinic were extremely touched that volunteer physicians provided all the care. "I didn't have that, growing up," he says.