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Nonprofits Are Playing a Vital Role in Civic Engagement

by Tory Martin
Nonprofits Are Playing a Vital Role in Civic Engagement
In this piece from our 11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2019 report, Tory Martin highlights the many ways in which nonprofit organizations are playing an increasingly visible role in our political lives — as pathways in to action and as proponents of civic engagement itself.

Front cover of the “11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2019” reportAnecdotally, America seems to be experiencing a great surge in civic engagement. The Women’s March on Washington brought millions of people together on every continent in January 2017, and tens of thousands more in 2018. The March for Our Lives, the March for Science, Black Lives Matter, even the protests and counter-protests associated with the alt-right are bringing thousands of Americans out into the streets to call for some definition of change. But what does that have to do with philanthropy?

Philanthropy is often defined as the giving of time, talent, and treasure. Since the 2016 election, we have seen innumerable examples of Americans giving all three of these to impact politics. In November 2016, over 80,000 people made donations to Planned Parenthood “in honor of” Vice President Mike Pence (Mettler, 2016). In the 15 months following the election, the American Civil Liberties Union’s membership jumped from 400,000 to 1.84 million (Reints, 2018). Even the $55 million drop in memberships and donations reported by the National Rifle Association in late 2018 can be considered the result of philanthropic action: people choosing to express their political views by withholding their time and treasure from that organization (Sykes, 2018).

Furthermore, Mati, et al. (2016) argue that social movement activism and protesting should be considered volunteering in the traditional sense. “[B]oth volunteering and social activism are actions undertaken without pay; they are voluntary to the extent that they are founded on individual free will and conviction” and share a “reliance on [the] commitment and capacities of ordinary people” (p. 520).

“[O]ver 80,000 people made donations to Planned Parenthood ‘in honor of’ Vice President Mike Pence. In the 15 months following the election, the American Civil Liberties Union’s membership jumped from 400,000 to 1.84 million.”

Still, not all the numbers bear out this narrative of renewal. According to a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, nearly half of Americans (48 percent) report that their level of involvement in civic activities (e.g., signing an online petition, donating money to a campaign or cause, or attending a public rally or demonstration) has not changed since 2016, with 45 percent reporting they took no actions at all. Only 20 percent say they have become more likely to take part in civic or political activities, while, importantly, 30 percent say they have become less likely to do so (Vandermaas-Peeler, et al., 2018).

This same study, however, reveals an important point for nonprofits: 62 percent of Americans report they “feel somewhat or very well represented by nonprofit groups advocating for change on issues they care about.” That’s more than double the number (28 percent) who reported they feel that way about national elected officials (Vandermaas-Peeler, et al., 2018, para. 67).

Nonprofits themselves are playing an increasingly visible role in our political lives. Social and policy crises around immigration, reproductive rights, healthcare, and other issues have highlighted the importance of nonprofits like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, among thousands of others at every scale, as representatives and advocates for groups of people struggling to achieve broader rights or opportunities, as pathways into action for those who want to get involved, and as proponents of civic engagement itself.

A study from Nonprofit VOTE, for instance, showed that voters who have been contacted by a nonprofit they know and trust were nearly 6 percent more likely to actually vote than those who had no such interaction (Miller, 2018). Surely this influence contributed to the massive success of National Voter Registration Day this year, a project coordinated by Nonprofit VOTE and which registered a record 800,000 voters (their initial goal was 300,000) (Parlier & Zdanowicz, 2018).

In “Is There Any Point to Protesting?” Nathan Heller (2017) points to the necessity of sustainable, centralized coordinating bodies behind the mass of people. “The recent studies make it clear that protest results don’t follow the laws of life: eighty percent isn’t just showing up. Instead, logistics reign and then constrain. Outcomes rely on how you coordinate your efforts, and on the skill with which you use existing influence as help” (para. 34).

In essence, you need a nonprofit — an institution organized around private action for the public good. You need people who are responsible for the logistics, the relationships, the communications, and who can, ultimately, negotiate with existing power structures on behalf of the movement (Heller, 2017).

The trend to watch, therefore, is less about Americans seeing their (small “d”) democratic activities as philanthropy; it’s about philanthropy’s growing awareness that its activities are democratic, too.


Heller, N. (2017, August 21). Is there any point to protesting? The New Yorker. Retrieved from

Mati J., WU F., Edwards B., Taraboulsi S., Smith D. (2016). Social movements and activist-protest volunteering. In The Palgrave handbook of volunteering, civic participation, and nonprofit associations (pp. 516-538). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mettler, K. (2016, November 15). People are donating to Planned Parenthood in Mike Pence’s name. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Miller, B. (2018). Engaging new voters: The impact of nonprofit voter outreach on client and community turnout.Retrieved from

Parlier, S., & Zdanowicz, C. (2018, October 2). A record 800,000 people registered to vote in a single day. CNN.Retrieved from

Reints, R. (2018, July 5). The ACLU’s membership has surged and it’s putting its new resources to use. Fortune.Retrieved from

Sykes, M. (2018, November 27). NRA reports $55 million loss with heavy declines in membership dues. Axios. Retrieved from

Vandermaas-Peeler, A., Cox, D., Najle, M., Fisch-Friedman, M., Griffin, R., & Jones, R. P. (2018). American democracy in crisis: Civic engagement, young adult activism, and the 2018 midterm elections. PRRI. Retrieved from