Civil Society for the 21st Century
Civil Society for the 21st Century
This article series, presented in partnership with Independent Sector, explores important issues of civil society in the 21st century: its origins and evolution, its boundaries and blind spots, its values and variety, its obstacles and opportunities.

It seems everywhere I go these days, people are talking and writing and podcasting about America’s lack of trust—how people don’t trust government and don’t trust each other. President Trump discourages us from trusting anything, especially the media. Even nonprofit organizations, which comprise the heart of civil society, are not exempt: A recent study found that trust in NGOs dropped by nine percent between 2017 and 2018. This fundamental lack of trust is eroding the shared public space where progress and even governance can happen, putting democracy at risk.

How did we get here? Perhaps it’s because Americans have taken our democratic way of life for granted. Perhaps it’s because people’s individual and collective beliefs are more polarized—and more out in the open—than ever before. Perhaps we’ve stopped believing we can solve problems together.

There are, however, opportunities to rebuild and fortify our sense of trust. This is especially true at the local level, where citizens can engage directly with elected leaders, nonprofit organizations, and each other.

As French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, “Municipal institutions constitute the strength of free nations. Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach; they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.” Through town halls and other means, cities are where citizens, elected leaders, and nonprofit organizations can most easily connect and work together to improve their communities.

Research shows that, while trust in government is low everywhere, it is highest in local government. This is likely because people can see that their votes influence issues they care about, and they can directly interact with their mayors and city council members. Unlike with members of Congress, citizens can form real relationships with local leaders through events like “walks with the mayor” and neighborhood cleanups. Some mayors do even more to connect with their constituents. In Detroit, for example, Mayor Michael Duggan meets with residents in their homes to help them solve problems and answer questions in person. Many mayors also join in neighborhood projects. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, for example, participates in a different community cleanup almost every week. Engaged citizens who participate in these activities are more likely to feel that their participation in democratic society is valuable and effective.

The role of nonprofit and community-based organizations, then, is partly to sustain democracy by being the bridge between city governments and citizens, helping them work together to solve concrete problems. It’s hard and important work. Time and again, this kind of relationship- and trust-building through action creates ripple effects that grow over time.

In my work with Cities of Service, which helps mayors and other city leaders effectively engage their citizens to solve problems, I’ve learned that local government works better when it is open to the ideas and talents of citizens. Citizen collaboration can take many forms, including defining and prioritizing problems, generating solutions, and volunteering time, creativity, and expertise to set positive change in motion. Citizens can leverage their own deep expertise about what’s best for their families and communities to deliver better services and solve public problems.

More often than not, we’ve found that city leaders across the country know that the people living in their cities are an untapped resource. They are open to working with citizens and community groups to identify challenges and create solutions. But with tight budgets and limited staff, many cities lack the capacity to adequately connect with residents on a large scale.

Nonprofits offer additional capacity, as well as depth of expertise in specific issues that cities may not possess, like education, homelessness, and technology. Many community-based organizations also have relationships with residents that cities have difficulty reaching, such as immigrant and low-income communities. When nonprofits and community-based organizations proactively connect with city leaders, they can plug into city networks and resources, and use the bully pulpit of the mayor to vastly expand their reach. Working with city leaders helps these organizations connect to new communities and partner organizations and increase their impact.

This is the kind of collaboration that we foster, and we’ve seen firsthand the far-reaching impact nonprofit organizations have when they work with cities and their citizens to do good. But we’re not alone. Code for Tulsa, a local chapter of Code for America, joins residents who have technological expertise with city government to help implement a variety of solutions, including creating more efficient bus routes and ensuring that residents show up for court dates by texting them automated reminders. In Huntington, West Virginia, an organization called Create Huntington helps develop community ideas, often working with the city to support initiatives. This has resulted in projects such as a community-run farmers market, started by students, that now employs 40 people in a building leased by the city for a dollar a year. In Anchorage, Alaska, the Food Policy Council partnered with municipal government to make community grants that fund school gardens and edible landscaping, as well as other projects that help residents in vulnerable communities grow their own food.

We now know that this kind of simple, straightforward collaboration can have effects beyond the immediate outcomes. Cities across the country are working with community groups and citizens to implement Love Your Block, one of our longstanding programs to revitalize neighborhoods one block at a time through projects like painting over graffiti with colorful murals and removing trash from playgrounds. A recent Urban Institute study found that the connection Love Your Block forges between city leaders and citizens can catalyze collective action by residents, boost investment in the neighborhood, and strengthen feelings of trust, all of which enhance their ability to effect change.

Coming together to identify and address concrete, local problems such as a vacant lot covered in litter or a clogged city waterway gives neighbors a way to develop relationships with each other and with the city where they live. Even after the projects end, the new relationships keep people coming together and bring more people out for future community engagement work. As one Love Your Block participant in Phoenix said, “The real change doesn’t come necessarily from the government. I think it comes from the community and the partnerships that are created in the community. ”

When nonprofit and community-based organizations connect neighbors with each other and citizens with their local governments, they strengthen democracy, one relationship at a time. More often than not, city leaders are looking for partners to help them break down silos and solve the problems they face. Fostering dialogue and collaboration helps communities solve local problems today, and builds the trust necessary to address more complex challenges together in the future.