Selling civic engagement: A unique role for the private sector?

A voter casts a ballot at the Flushing Volunteer Fire Department in Flushing, Ohio, March 6, 2012. Republicans are holding their "Super Tuesday" presidential primary in 10 states.    REUTERS/Matt Sullivan    (UNITED STATES - Tags: ELECTIONS POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - GM1E8370HRA01

Much has been written on the worrisome trends in Americans’ faith and participation in our nation’s democracy. According to the World Values Survey, almost 20 percent of millennials in the U.S. think that military rule or an authoritarian dictator is a “fairly good” form of government, and only 29 percent believe that living in a country that is governed democratically is “absolutely important.” In the last year, trust in American democratic institutions has dropped—only 53 percent of Americans view American democracy positively. This decline in faith and participation in our democracy has been ongoing for some time, as noted in the 2005 collection of essays, “Democracy At Risk: How Political Choices Undermine Citizen Participation, and What We Can Do About It.” The essays chart the “erosion of the activities and capacities of citizenship” from voting to broad civic engagement over the past several decades.

While civil society and government have been the actors most commonly addressing this worrisome trend, is there also a constructive role for the private sector to play? After all, compared to other options like military or authoritarian rule, a functioning democracy is much more likely to provide the conditions for free enterprise that business desires. One only has to look to the current events in Venezuela for a quick reminder of this.

Many companies do engage in a range of activities that broadly support civic engagement, from dedicating corporate social responsibility (CSR) dollars to civically-minded community activities to supporting employee volunteerism. These are worthy activities and should certainly continue, but given the crisis of faith in the foundations of our democratic process, the private sector could play a much bigger role in helping support a movement for renewed understanding of and participation in our political process. Many of the private sector’s most powerful tools for doing this lie not inside companies’ CSR portfolios but in their unique expertise in selling things. Every day companies leverage their expertise in influence—from branding to market-segmentation—to get Americans to use their products and services. What if this expertise were harnessed toward promoting civic understanding and engagement?

Companies could play a particularly useful role by tapping new resources to amplify existing good work and build increasing interest in civic engagement. Two ways of doing this could include the below.

Amplify the existing good work of nonprofits

For years, the nonprofit sector has been at the forefront of addressing the worrisome decline in civic engagement. Quietly and without much public attention, numerous civil society organizations with talented and dedicated members have been working hard to improve civic education in schools, dialogue in communities, and youth participation in civic life. For example, when Sandra Day O’Connor retired from the Supreme Court, she founded iCivics, a nonprofit dedicated to children’s civic learning, in 2009. “The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool, it must be learned anew by each generation of citizens,” she eloquently argued. Today iCivics serves just under 5 million kids through innovative games and digital resources that help them learn how our political system works and teach civic engagement. External evaluations have shown that student scores on a test of civic knowledge improved significantly after playing iCivics games for a six-week period of time.

But rarely do nonprofits have ample budgets to communicate about their work. “We could certainly use help in getting our message out,” says Anthony Pennay from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, who leads the organization’s civic education programming work with tens of thousands of students across the country each year. Even with a high-profile founder like President Reagan, who argued that education and democracy have gone hand in hand since the founding of the country, work on civic engagement can struggle to break through in crowded media landscapes. Many nonprofits working in the space are short-staffed, notes Alberto Reyes-Olivas, the Executive Director of Arizona State University’s Pastor Center for Politics and Public Service. A long-time civic engagement professional, he observes that most civic education and engagement groups are underfunded, and spending priority frequently goes to programming, not communications.

To amplify the existing good work of nonprofits, media companies can report on the issues that nonprofits are trying to address, including highlighting stories from programs on the ground. Companies with strong marketing and branding expertise can lend pro bono support to help develop better communications strategies. But perhaps most helpful, companies can use the many dissemination channels at their disposal to get all segments of society to care about civic engagement issues nonprofits are trying to address.

Indeed, CivXNow, an alliance of over 80 nonprofits dedicated to improving K-12 civic education, identified increasing “the public’s commitment to civic engagement” as a top lever for effecting change in a recent study co-authored with Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. Building demand for civic engagement and participation in our democracy is one way of sustainably lifting up all the nonprofits working in this space.

Leverage entertainment to advance behavior change

The power of entertainment to change behavior should not be underestimated. The rise of the “designated driver” as a successful behavior to curb drunk driving accidents serves as a strong example. In 1986, an aspiring journalist and public health researcher named Jay Winsten went to Sweden and Norway and learned about the cultural practice of using sober designated drivers. According to Harvard Business Review, upon return, he convinced a variety of broadcasting and media companies to spread the concept of designated drivers through advertising, public service announcements, news, and entertainment programming. Winsten and his team secured $100 million per year in donated airtime, and more than 160 prime-time TV shows incorporated designated drivers and drunk driving themes into their programming. As a result, the percentage of drivers who self-identified as designated drivers increased from 5 percent in 1986 to 24.7 percent in 1996, according to the National Roadside Survey.

Entertainment can successfully be leveraged not only for straightforward behavior change like becoming a designated driver but also for changing attitudes and beliefs. The cartoon company Big Bad Boo is a children’s media company that was founded to develop high-quality cartoons and entertainment-based education programs that promote diversity, inclusion, civil rights, and political participation. Their cartoons currently air in more than 80 countries as commercial entertainment to a global audience of more than 100 million people per year. Data from an evaluation of their program “1001 Nights,” developed and analyzed by experts from Oxford University, have found that their programs have increased appreciation of gender equality, kindness toward others, non-violence, and the rule of law by 41 percent, 46 percent, 42 percent, and 79 percent, respectively, among 117 refugee children aged 5 to 15 in Jordan.

Indeed, television and other forms of entertainment overseas regularly help build civic participation and appreciation for how democracy works. In fact, the U.S. Department of State has a long history of financing this work in many newly democratic countries.

Entertainment companies from across all mediums have a role to play in championing democracy in their programming.

Given the stakes, the private sector should seriously consider lending some of their core competencies to promoting civic engagement, and not just in the backyards of company offices and operations, but across the whole country.