Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

October 24, 2011

Civic engagement tied to economic resilience

By Todd Cohen

Volunteering may be good for the economy.

A new report by the National Conference on Citizenship says that states with higher levels of civic engagement are more resilient against unemployment.

The report looked at eight economic factors likely to predict unemployment since 2006, as well as five measures of civic engagement, including volunteering, attending public meetings, working with neighbors to address community problems, registering to vote, and voting.

States and localities with more civic engagement in 2006 saw less growth in unemployment between 2006 and 2010, the report says.

An increase of one point in volunteering, for example, was associated with 0.192 point less unemployment when the economic factors were controlled.

While the correlations do not prove that civic engagement lowers unemployment at the state level, and there are other explanations for those correlations, the report says, civic indicators strongly predicted unemployment change, while none of the economic factors were significantly related to employment change.

A possible explanation for those relationships is that “having stronger civic health helps states weather recessions better,” the report says, adding that research “supports the plausibility of this hypothesis.”

The report says research has found that participation in civil society “can develop skills, confidence, and habits that make individuals employable and strengthen the networks that help them to find jobs.”

Research also has found that people get jobs through social networks, and that participating in civil society spreads information and is strongly correlated with trust in other people, the report says.

And research has found that communities and political jurisdictions with stronger civil societies are “more likely to have good governments,” and that civic engagement can “encourage people to feel attached to their communities,” the report says.

“Investors may be more willing to create jobs locally if they trust other people and the local government, if they know about opportunities and can disseminate information efficiently, and if they feel that the local workforce is skilled,” it says. “All these factors correlate with civic engagement.”

A recent report by the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the National Conference on Citizenship, found that Americans continue to play and active role in civic life and to work with others to improve their communities.

Between 2008 and 2010, 62.7 million Americans, or 26.5 percent, volunteered with an organization, says the 2011 Civic Life in America Report, while 20 million, or 8.4 percent, worked with a neighbor to fix a community problem.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the charitable marketplace, and are indispensable to the work of nonprofits and the effort to make our communities better places to live and work.

While the idea that volunteering and other forms of civic engagement are good for the economy may be “circumstantial, suggestive and far from conclusive,” as the National Conference on Citizenship concedes, that idea makes a lot of sense.

Either way, volunteering matters and makes a big difference in our communities.


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