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In the past few decades, nonprofit and voluntary associations (collectively referred to as civil society organizations (CSOs)) have grown dramatically, creating tremendous positive impacts on local communities. However, not much research has been conducted to empirically assess the impact of CSOs on civic development within their community. We conceptualize these impacts using a “footprint” analogy. By examining a variety of organizational output measures, we argue that the “Civic Footprint” of CSOs can provide an empirical evaluation of the individual and collective impacts of CSOs on their environment. This research draws on recent literature and one-to-one interviews with organizational leaders in one small American town to aid in the development of a theoretical and measurable model of the quantifiable impacts of CSOs on their external environment.
To develop the conceptual framework for the Civic Footprint, I studied the town of Council Grove, Kansas and the nonprofit organizations located in this community. I interviewed the managers and leaders of each nonprofit organization to determine the specific impacts that their organization had on their community. The range of organizations in this study included historical societies, community centers, economic development corporations, churches, arts and culture organizations, and environmental groups. Each organization contributed positively to the Council Grove community, but in different ways. After evaluating the interviews, several themes emerged, which were then synthesized to develop an empirical evaluation framework to measure the Civic Footprint of a civil society organization. These were:
1. Programs and initiatives that involve volunteers and members.
2. Administrative activities that engage community members as volunteers.
3. Programs and initiatives that support or promote collective community gatherings (i.e. between members/affiliated service users and non-members/non-affiliated service users).
4. Programs and initiatives that support participation in other community or group level activities (such as promoting inclusion, diversity and social networking).
5. Programs and initiatives which are collaborative with other CSOs in the community.
6. Programs and initiatives that are aimed at the general community (as opposed to a specific population group within the community or a group of organization members).
7. Programs and initiatives that engage with other communities (i.e. local, state, and national) to promote local community development.
8. Programs and initiatives promoting awareness or education about a specific social, economic, cultural, environmental, or political issue.
9. Programs and initiatives that support community development beyond a mandated service area.
The degree to which an organization fulfills each element of this evaluative measure reflects the size of its Civic Footprint and its impact on civic development in the community.