Donors Forum Releases Report on Community Engagement

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Engage ReportIn March 2012, Donors Forum Members, Partners and Associate Partners convened for the first time to discuss how to be more intentional in using community engagement methods to pursue their missions and to contribute to a vibrant and thriving civic landscape.

The final report from the March 2012 Convening -- "Engage to the nth Degree" contains an overview of the convening, an analysis of the state of community engagement and strategies to increase it, and an exploration of the relationship between healthy communities and the creation of jobs. It also includes the results from the AmericaSpeaks polling that occurred throughout the convening.

Before any meaningful discussions on raising the bar on community engagement can take place, one must be educated on the civic health of the city and state—and understand why knowing that is such a crucial factor in realizing philanthropic aims. The news is not good. While Chicago is no worse than most American cities in meeting these criteria, its civic health is still  “on life support,” according to the 2010 Chicago Civic Health Index, co-sponsored by the McCormick Foundation and the Citizens Advocacy Center.

Increasing commuity engagement is certainly worth doing: as convening speaker Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) and Tufts University research director noted, "Increasing the level of community engagement can strengthen democracy, build trust between citizens and public institutions and even strengthen a region’s economy and lead to jobs."

The key to bringing about the kind of greater community engagement that will ultimately strengthen the city and the region involves first and foremost restoring lost trust, said Bruce Sievers, Visiting Scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and the convening’s other featured speaker.

Community engagement is about about altering the way people view each other, building on those changed perceptions to strengthen community ties. Where foundations and nonprofits are concerned, the Donors Forum convening helped to serve that purpose, providing not only a forum for education and lively discussion, but another step towards building relationships that strengthen community overall.

“We must pay attention to the underlying health of civil society. It’s vital to everything that we do, and if we don’t do it, who will?” -- Bruce Sievers

As reflected by the strong turnout for “Engage to the nth Degree,” and the passions its participants brought to it, members of Chicago’s foundation and nonprofit communities are committed to inventing new ways of expressing and meeting the demands of the communities they serve. Engaging those communities is at the heart of those changes.

 Sievers, issuing a call to action, identified as crucial goals understanding the populations with which organizations work, giving citizens a voice in public processes and changing public policy. Building a civil society—“the grandest, deepest, most elusive element”—requires strengthening the media and people’s relationship with it, providing better information, and increasing tolerance. “We must pay attention to the underlying health of civil society,” said Sievers. “It’s vital to everything that we do, and if we don’t do it, who will?”

The full report is available here.