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7 min read

The Difference Between “Civically Engaged” And “Volunteer”

October 17, 2011


Last month the Corporation for National and Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship released a joint annual report revealing that “a majority” of Americans are civically active in their communities.

I don’t know about you, but the first thing I did after reading this was scratch my head. What on earth is “civically active?” Is it different from “volunteering?” If most Americans are civically active, are nonprofits obsolete? How is this classification, and the fact that most Americans fall into it, relevant to nonprofits? Read on.

According to the Civic Life in America website, “civic life” is defined as the “common thread of participation in and building of one’s community.” This didn’t clear up much for me. Common thread amongst whom? What sorts of participation? Building which community – local, global, online…?

Basically, civically engaged individuals as identified by this new report are people who care about what’s going on around them, and who take some action that indicates this. The report specifies five categories of civic participation that were tracked:

Of course, it’s important to note that the “service” category is not necessarily service with an organization. In fact, while as much as 90% of Americans are active in any given category above, only 26.5% of people surveyed volunteer with a nonprofit. So “civically active” is NOT the same thing as “volunteer.”


At this point, I hope a lightbulb is going off above your head, or perhaps a little birdy singing “Opportunity! Opportunity!” Because for nonprofits, these civically active people are the cream of the potential volunteering crop.

Individuals who are involved in one of the categories of civic participation are statistically more likely to get involved in others, including volunteering. This makes sense – these people have already shown that they are willing to make at least a small time and effort commitment to strengthening their communities. So all nonprofits need to do is show them how to make that commitment – and their impact – greater through volunteering.

But how? How can nonprofits like you turn civically active people into volunteers for your organizations? Below are some tips based on data included in the Civic Life in America report and our expertise here at VolunteerMatch:

  • The Internet is an increasingly important way for people to stay connected with the people and causes they care about. According to the report, approximately one-third of Americans talk with friends and family online every day. This is a powerful word of mouth network. Nonprofits that connect with people online have a greater chance of getting them to connect offline, as well.
  • Civic engagement follows a pattern very similar to the volunteer lifecycle mentioned in our post about Generation X – civic involvement tends to increase during periods when individuals feel a deeper connection to their communities. If you recognize this, you can target the age groups that tend to feel a deeper connection to your specific cause area, such as education for parents, or working with seniors for 55+.
  • All these people who are civically engaged have one thing in common – they want to make a difference. Their involvement in the categories listed above is proof of that. As a nonprofit it’s your job to show them that they can make an even bigger difference by volunteering with your organization. So it’s important for you to tell your story of impact – how does what you do, and the way you do it, strengthen your community? Once you’ve answered this question, you can share your compelling story with potential supporters.
  • Finally, the categories specified in the report, and listed above, are a valuable tool for segmenting your recruiting efforts. Craft opportunities that are compelling for people involved in each of these specific areas. Use these to pull them into your mission and show them how they can use their interests in political action, social connectedness or current events to make a difference.
To get more help and ideas for how to turn “civically active” into volunteers, check out the Resource Center from the Corporation for National and Community Service, VolunteerMatch’s Learning Center, and be sure to update your volunteer opportunities on VolunteerMatch.


Shari Tishman

Written by Shari Tishman

Shari led Online Marketing and Communications at VolunteerMatch from 2010-2015. After working with nonprofits for 9 years, she moved over to the corporate sector and is now leading Inbound Marketing for a tech company in San Francisco.