A Community Resource Exchange (CRE) client uses journey mapping in a leadership development workshop. (Photo by Thi Q. Lam)

For many direct service nonprofits, promoting civic engagement and advocacy—especially in light of the heightened stressors facing vulnerable US communities today—has begun to emerge as a greater priority. But as an add-on to existing and often underfunded programming work, it can seem like a stretch. Many organizations just don’t have the bandwidth or expertise they need to succeed.

Earlier this year, our consulting firm, Community Resources Exchange (CRE), saw this new interest—organizations’ desire to be part of something larger—come to the fore during two workshops we facilitated on risk and resilience. During the workshops, and in pre-workshop surveys completed by 50-plus nonprofit leaders, participants described three opportunities for their organizations to pursue:

  1. Constituent participation. This includes educating constituents about how policies on issues like immigration and health care affect them—whether or not the organizations focus directly on these issues. It also includes building the capacity of constituents to mobilize around or vote for their interests, as well as creating opportunities for constituents to participate in the public policy process.
  2. Advocacy. This involves having hard conversations with boards and staff to clarify, shape consensus on, and adopt organizational positions on policy issues that impact mission; advocating on behalf of community members for issues such as legal protections for immigrant families; and educating legislators to shape public decision-making in ways that support mission.
  3. Strategic alliances. This includes sharing organizational resources across issue areas—such as health, education, and housing—and building solidarity and smarter collaborations to strengthen community mobilization and public policy impact.

Once organizations recognize these priorities, the question becomes: How do organizations pursue them when they are already under strain just running their own programs?

Civic Engagement and Human-Centered Design

The answer is human-centered design (HCD)—the process of walking in our constituents’ shoes and drawing from their lived experience as inspiration for product or service design. In particular, the answer is in journey mapping, a process that deepens empathy for, and immersion in, the experiences of an organization’s constituents. For many nonprofits, journey mapping is an ideal starting point for beginning to implement HCD for civic engagement, because it allows organizations to see with different eyes.

The process, which can unfold over several brief, one-hour meetings, convenes staff across multiple teams and levels, as well as external stakeholders (including constituents themselves), to piece together and visualize a holistic view of the constituents’ experiences. The group synthesizes constituents’ behaviors, thoughts, and emotions to inform a shared understanding of their entire experience through different phases of an organization’s work.

One of the reasons journey mapping works so well is because the process includes unpacking and pausing on frequently unexamined experiences, such as what constituents might have been feeling before they made contact with the organization or at specific moments when they interacted with nonprofit staff. It also shifts an organization’s lens toward letting constituents’ experiences drive decision-making, rather than internal processes.

Journey mapping draws on the “5Es” widely deployed in the field of user experience (UX)—a framework that allows participants to map the experience of the group they define as their target population:

  1. Entice: How do constituents first find out about your work? What are they feeling, fearing, or wanting at that moment? For example, undocumented women who hear about a program from a friend may worry about how their legal status precludes their participation or puts them at risk of being “found out” if they attend the program.
  2. Enter: What are their experiences of “signing up” for a program or their first interaction with your organization? Who do they talk to and where? You may find that participants spend a long time in your office lobby interacting with administrative staff as part of the sign up process—how can you use this knowledge to improve the process?
  3. Engage: What’s their “first-use” and/or sustained experience of the program? What are their highlights and challenges? For example, participants might find peer interactions the most motivating part of the program, and if so how can you build this in throughout the process?
  4. Exit: What’s the moment when they either leave or return again? Who do they talk to? How do they feel? Upon completion, you may observe that there was no single point of contact to check in on their experience and facilitate sustained connection with the organization.
  5. Extend: What do they tell others about their experience of your organization? How can they support the reach or scale of your work? For example, some graduating participants might welcome roles as mentors if these were crafted as leadership development opportunities with appropriate incentives.

Integrating Civic Engagement as a Core Practice

This process of immersion then becomes the foundation for brainstorming ideas for integrating civic engagement at each point of the 5E spectrum, rather than creating a new or standalone civic engagement program. These processes can seem daunting at best and near impossible for nonprofits that aren’t used to thinking of themselves as sites and agents of social justice.

Using the 5E stages in our post-election workshops, our clients unpacked true-to-life examples of their communities’ experiences and brainstormed ideas for how they could build civic engagement into existing programs and processes.

Entice: Understanding that at this stage, some constituents are worried about even leaving their homes (for example, undocumented immigrants may fear possible detention or deportation due to a rise in immigration and customs enforcement activity), participants discussed how they might respond. Ideas included being explicit that undocumented clients are welcome, involving volunteers as “safe companions” who may accompany undocumented clients to programs, and providing information about these supports as part of program communications upfront.

Enter: Similarly, observing that receptionists at program sites were often the first point of contact, participants brainstormed ways to equip them with some basic tools to promote civic engagement. Ideas included providing information to community members about their rights, engaging community members walking into a site in nonpartisan discussions around voting, or even registering constituents to vote before elections.

Engage: Participants also discovered numerous opportunities to infuse civic education curriculum into afterschool or leadership development programs for clients. A notable example of this was a nonprofit that partners with social service organizations to integrate nonpartisan civic engagement activities that promote awareness of elections and political issues, and encourage voting and other participation in public policy making. This group trained nonprofit staff on how to infuse democracy-related education into afterschool programs with youth, who are generally less likely to vote,. It thereby incorporated civic engagement into already existing programs instead of creating new programs from the ground up.

Exit and Extend: At these stages, many workshop participants realized their programs provided multiple opportunities to celebrate and tell stories about graduating clients, and to mobilize them as mentors, volunteers, program ambassadors, and even emerging community leaders. These people can work to encourage intergenerational civic engagement in their communities and beyond through activities, events, and networking.

While CRE’s workshops were focused on helping nonprofits frame their constituents’ experiences and generate solutions, we encouraged participants to validate their journey maps and ideas through engagement with real constituents afterwards. Once validated, they could begin to test, launch, and scale some of the most promising ideas, learning from and partnering with groups already doing this.

Of course, some ideas that emerged during the brainstorm will be more feasible than others, but there are already many examples of nonprofits leveraging their unique trust with underrepresented citizens to fuel greater civic engagement and advocacy efforts. In a sector caught up with measurement and metrics, we can forget who we aim to serve and who we are accountable to. HCD reminds us that we sometimes need to see with different eyes, that communities can influential if we hear their voices, and that civic engagement is a compelling way for nonprofits to achieve our missions of catalyzing change.