IF THEY GAVE MACARTHUR “GENIUS” AWARDS to people who were actually making the world a better place, Rev. Henry Delaney would get one every year. Delaney is not your typical philanthropist. First, he has, shall we say, a commanding presence—his friends call him “500 pounds of prophecy.” His imposing stature comes in handy, though, for he is also a vocal Republican, which is apparently a rarity in his poor, mostly African-American neighborhood of Savannah, Georgia.
Delaney is also the pastor of a 2,500 member parish, the St. Paul CME Church, though to call St. Paul’s a parish is a little like comparing Mardi Gras to a garden party. His ministry has a bewildering variety of programs for people in the community. He runs several programs for young people, a program for people who do not have enough to eat, and a program for people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. He rehabilitates abandoned houses for people who have no place to live. He runs a private school for troubled young men and sells ice-cream from a storefront—the Heavenly Dee-Lite Ice Cream Parlor—that doubles as a neighborhood gathering place for kids and adults. He also operates several shops, one that sells used clothing and household goods and another that sells new clothing at a discount, so that his neighbors can find something nice to wear to a job interview or to church. We’re not sure where he finds the time, but he also preaches on Sundays and teaches Bible study most nights.
Delaney is not a rich man—financially speaking anyway—and neither are his parishioners, whom he refers to as the “well-off poor.” Yet, when the church needs something—a science laboratory for the school or a new roof—they all give, and they give more than they can probably afford to. He’s appealed to the local foundations and corporations for assistance, but without much luck. At least two local foundations objected to the overtly religious dimension of his work—as if it was not integral to the great results he accomplishes.
As with his parishioners, Delaney himself does what he does because he believes that it is important, and because he knows he is making a difference. He gives of himself—his time and energy—with little financial reward. He gives out of his own pocket—if he hadn’t been willing to, many of his programs would not exist. He’s involved in his community. He’s part of the glue that holds it together. He’s also politically engaged, because he knows that politics matters too. Basically, Delaney simply has been unwilling to sit around and wait for others to do what he knows he ought to be doing.
If the rest of us could do half of what he does, we’d be a lot better off. But why don’t we? In 1997, the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal (a project of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation) in collaboration with researchers at the University of Connecticut, set out to answer this question. Our goal was to create a set of indices, in which a series of related questions could be combined into a single summary measure (or number), which would lend itself to being recorded over time in order to measure changes. An index of this type would be on a parallel with, for instance, the Index of Leading Economic Indicators, which condenses large numbers of individual trends into a more readily understood summary. In the course of the project, we conducted a survey of 1,000 randomly selected Americans.
We dubbed our index the Nation’s Index of Civic Engagement, and it has five components.
The first, The Giving Climate, looks at the emotional and attitudinal basis in which giving and others kinds of civic engagement take place.
The second, Community Engagement, looks at what people are actually doing in their communities.
The third, Charitable Involvement, looks at the kinds of causes and charities to which people give money to or volunteer time.
The fourth, The Spirit of Voluntarism, measures the centrality of the experience of community service to the American people.
Finally, the fifth, Active Citizenship, looks at the performance of the American people relative to what they believe are their obligations as citizens.
The Index does have limitations, chief among them is what we have come to refer to as the “Mother Teresa problem.” Mother Teresa, who dedicated her life to helping the sick and the poor, might be expected to have done very well in terms of contributing to the civic health. Yet, on one of our behavioral indices, “breadth of involvement,” she would score very low, because her work focused on one area. Her investment, in a manner of speaking, was very deep but not very broad. This limitation is at least partly addressed in the following index, which measures “intensity of involvement.”
The Index produces five scores, each on a scale of zero to 100, and an overall composite score. If every person who was asked gave the most “positive” answer, the score would be 100. If half did, it would be 50. If none did, it would be zero. While the theoretical range for each indicator is zero to 100, there is no particular point that we have labeled “good” or “acceptable.” Even Rev. Delaney, we suspect, would score lower on some indicators than on others. Our purpose is to provide a baseline from which future changes—improvements, we hope—in the expressed attitudes and behaviors of the American people in terms of civic engagement can be evaluated.
THE NATION’S INDEX OF CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
I. The Giving Climate 80
II. Community Engagement 34
III. Charitable Involvement 34
A. Breadth of Involvement 46
B. Intensity of Involvement 23
IV. The Spirit of Voluntarism 26
A. Viewed as Important and Well Done 12
B. Comparative Importance 40
V. Active Citizenship 35
Overall Average 42
While there are complex relationships among the behaviors and attitudes measured here, the climate of opinion is strongly supportive of further civic engagement. This, in our view, is the first step toward a more active citizenry and a healthier society. To that extent, our findings are positive.
We do not, however, live in an ideal world, and it is unrealistic to expect everyone to be involved in all areas. It is even more unrealistic to imagine that they would give both their time and money to all those areas. Perfection in that sense represents an extremely high bar. Yet, the American people know they have lots of room for improvement, and are quite assertive on this point: They believe not only that we can do better but that we should do better.
Among the other findings of the Index:
There is remarkable similarity over all the dimensions among different sub-groups of the population (such as age, sex, and ethnic groups), suggesting that the Index is not simply blurring the differences among different groups.
In terms of Charitable Involvement (which consists of two sub-indicators), there is plenty of room for improvement. In contrast to the example of Mother Teresa, however, Breadth of Involvement (the number of areas in which individuals have at least some connection) tends to be a good deal higher than the Intensity of Involvement (putting one’s time where one’s wallet is, and vice versa).
Our most dismal finding is on the so-called Spirit of Voluntarism, coming in at 26 percent of what it would be if every individual gave the most “positive” response. This reveals that, while people think volunteering is very important—even when compared to a number of other important obligations—most people—88 in 100—believe that we are doing a poor job. In terms of volunteering, there is vast room for improvement.
It is clear to us that people’s heads and hearts are ahead of their hands and their wallets. But a desire for more engagement is evident, and that engagement is the precondition for civic renewal. One place to start that process might be to pay a little more attention to what the Henry Delaneys of the world are doing.
Sample Questions from the Nation’s Index of Civic Engagement
I. THE GIVING CLIMATE
Compared to the goal—such as curing a disease, or feeding the hungry—how much attention do you pay to how effective charities are in actually meeting the goal when you give? And how well informed do you think you are in general about how effectively the money you give away is actually used?
II. COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT
Now here is a list of things some people do in their communities. Please tell me if you have done any of these things in the past year. First, have you attended a public meeting on town or school affairs? Attended a meeting of a club or civic organization? Served as an officer of some club or organization? Worked informally on projects in the community?
III. CHARITABLE INVOLVEMENT
There are lots of different causes people volunteer time for and donate money to. For each of the following, please tell me if within the past year, you have volunteered time, donated money, or neither volunteered nor donated money. First, have you volunteered or contributed in order to help people in need, such as the poor, hungry, or homeless? Victims of crime, abuse, or natural disaster? Helping people who are sick, or working to cure disease? Help the elderly?
IV. THE SPIRIT OF VOLUNTARISM
We all know that Americans have certain rights, such as the right to free speech and to a free public education. Now I’d like you to consider what obligations or responsibilities, if any, we have towards others. First, volunteering time to community service. Is this an absolutely essential obligation for us as Americans, a somewhat important obligation or entirely a matter of personal preference? Reporting a crime that one has witnessed? Donating blood or organs to help with medical needs? Keeping fully informed about news and public issues?
V. ACTIVE CITIZENSHIP
We all know that Americans have certain rights, such as the right to free speech and to a free public education. Now I’d like you to consider what obligations or responsibilities, if any, we have towards others. First, volunteering time to community service. Is this an absolutely essential obligation for us as Americans, a somewhat important obligation or entirely a matter of personal preference? Taking action to help if we hear someone screaming or see them being attacked? Treating all people equally regardless of race or ethnic background?
John W. Barry is a research associate and Bruno V. Manno is a senior fellow in the Washington, D.C., office of Hudson Institute. Manno was executive director and Barry was a research associate with the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. For a free copy of the Nation’s Index of Civic Engagement, write to the authors at 1015 18th Street N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20036.