Nonprofits Help Make Us Good Citizens

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In his classic study of 19th-century American life, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville asserts that “civil associations pave the way for political ones.” Tocqueville’s conclusion about the United States was that American democracy was ensured by its involved citizenry, which made its wishes known to elected officials, and held politicians accountable to voters. Active citizenship was, in turn, a function of participation in community organizations that were neither government-created nor work-related, but based on mutual trust, a sense of equality, and inter-reliance among citizens.

In today’s parlance, the “Tocqueville hypothesis” might be stated thus: “Civic participation makes good citizens.” Often assumed but rarely tested, this hypothesis under-girds the belief—common in the nonprofit sector—that nonprofit and voluntary sector organizations, which bring people together for reasons of mutual or public interests, are an integral part of the fabric of our democracy. This belief is consistent with the notion that nonprofit and voluntary organizations act as a critical buffer between isolated citizens and the overwhelming power of states. Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus articulate this idea most famously in their book To Empower People, in which they argue that voluntary organizations are the best means to mobilize individuals both socially and politically, lifting them above passive reliance on government bureaucracies.

This hypothesis does not escape challenge, of course. Indeed, a number of 20th-century writers have suggested that the political effectiveness of ordinary citizens is diluted when people coalesce around “minor” interests. The idea is that much civic participation fragments the citizenry, leaving it more open to exploitation and less willing and able to take coherent political action against nondemocratic forces (such as, many believe, the forces of capitalist commerce).

A new source of data allows us to examine the relationship between voluntary activity and citizen engagement. In the fall of 2004, the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School undertook a national poll of approximately 600 American adults on these issues. The survey asked respondents approximately 80 questions about their beliefs about the conduct of government, their involvement in governmental affairs, and their membership in many types of voluntary associations. These associations included religious groups (besides congregation membership), fraternal and special interest organizations, those dedicated to charitable activity, and even those simply requiring a fee for membership.

The data provide strong evidence that citizens involved in voluntary associations are far more likely to be active and informed than those who are not involved. For example, people who belong to associations are 16 percentage points more likely to say they follow public affairs (89 to 73 percent) than those who don’t belong to any voluntary groups, 25 points more likely to vote (if they are eligible) in almost every election (93 to 68 percent), and 26 points more likely to contact their elected officials in a given year (41 to 15 percent).

The data also show that the degree of citizen involvement depends on the type of voluntary activity. For example, those most likely to vote are frequently involved in religious groups, while those most likely to contact elected officials are most often (not surprisingly) members of political associations.

Of course, voluntary group membership is probably not the only force associated with citizen engagement—many other personal characteristics undoubtedly are factors as well. Therefore, it is worthwhile to see how voluntary activity relates to citizenship in isolation from all other variables. Using statistical techniques appropriate to this purpose we can see that, if two people are identical in every meaningful way (for example, with respect to income, age, sex, education, race, political views, and family size) except in their voluntary participation, group members are seven percentage points more likely to vote than nonmembers, nine points more likely to follow public affairs, and 30 points more likely to contact their public officials.

These demographic characteristics themselves hold interesting information about who is most likely to join voluntary groups. Money, education, and age all increase the likelihood of participation. Most significant, however, is religion. If two people are identical in every way except that one person attends his or her house of worship every week (or more often) while the other person never attends (or attends only very occasionally), the religious person is 16 points more likely than the secular person to belong to an association—although this difference disappears if we don’t consider the religious associations.

There are other possible ways to interpret the evidence here. For example, it may be that good citizens feel compelled to volunteer. But in general, these data are supportive of Tocqueville’s assertion that volunteers are good citizens. And this in turn bolsters our belief that the nonprofit sector—at least the part that involves people in a voluntary capacity—plays a role in promoting the engagement of Americans with their government.

Arthur C. Brooks is an associate professor of public administration and director of the nonprofit studies program at the Campbell Public Affairs Institute, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. More information about the 2004 Campbell Institute Poll on Citizenship and Inequality is available online.