What Gets People Engaged, and Keeps Them Engaged Over Time? Relationships with other participants and the opportunity to play a role that is meaningful and challenging

Excerpt from Univ. of Wisconsin, distributed by Climate Advocacy 2019

In short, the answers to these questions are: (1) relationships with other participants and, (2) the opportunity to play a role that is meaningful and challenging. These answers are supported by research on local community
organizing (Christens & Speer, 2011), and are also related to theory on human development and community settings. In research on five local community organizing initiatives over a five-year period, we found that people who participated in short one-to-one meetings with other participants were more likely to continue their involvement in community organizing than those who did not. This was true even when we took many other factors into account, such as overall levels of previous involvement, and individual and neighborhood demographic characteristics. Similarly, people who attended certain types of meetings were more likely to continue or increase their involvement in community organizing over time.

The meeting type that was found to be particularly powerful for getting people engaged is called a research action. Research actions involve a small group (e.g., 8-12) of people who are working on a particular issue (e.g., improving public schools). A research action involves inviting decision-makers on the issue at hand to join the group for a meeting. For example, a group working on issues related to public education might invite school principals, a superintendent, or a member of the city council. The group carefully plans the research action meeting in advance, so that they will be able to gather the information they need regarding the issue, and so that each volunteer participant is integrally involved in the discussion with the decision-maker. In other words, every person who attends has an important role to play.

Research actions are powerful because they give people the chance to directly engage in the tough, strategic questions about public issues and community change processes. Too often, organizations send their volunteers an unspoken message that such decisions are better left to the professional staff of the organization. By involving everyday people in all
aspects of the process, even the important conversations with powerful people, the organizations we studied were implicitly communicating to their base of grassroots leaders that they were valued – not just as bodies at a rally or signatures on a petition – but as strategists and communicators. Their volunteers responded by becoming more committed to staying involved in the organizing campaign.

One-to-one conversations play a similar role in motivating continued involvement (Christens & Speer, 2011). In some models of community organizing, one-to-ones are intentionally geared toward building “public relationships” (Christens, 2010). In other words, they are about listening to another person’s story and understanding how their interests and issues are connected to community issues. The goal is not necessarily a close friendship, but a personal relationship that is trusting and has the capacity for growth and even accountability. Having a multitude of public relationships with other residents motivates volunteers to continue their involvement, and connects the work on public issues to the personal lives of fellow volunteers.

Which Comes First – Participation or Empowerment?

The process of building a base of committed grassroots volunteers involves encouraging both certain types of actions (i.e., community participation) as well as capacity building, such as leadership development and psychological empowerment. One question in these processes concerns where to focus limited energy for training and leadership development. Another set of questions involve timing and order – should the focus initially be developing individual leaders, encouraging broader participation, or large-scale community action?

Findings from recent research on community organizing over time (Christens, Peterson & Speer, 2011) indicate that it is likely more effective to focus, at least initially, on encouraging community participation, rather than focusing on changing the beliefs or capacities of individual leaders. As it turns out, people who are participating more in civic affairs demonstrate gains in psychological empowerment over time. Therefore, giving participants more opportunities to become active – attending meetings, having conversations about issues, gathering information, writing letters – will, over time, increase their knowledge and skills, as well as their confidence and sense of effectiveness on social and political issues.

Should Strategies be Different for Different Populations?

Some strategies tend to work regardless of the demographic characteristics (e.g., age, race/ethnicity, income, or levels of formal education) of the populations that a group is seeking to organize. For instance, in one study (Christens & Speer, 2011), we examined the impact of different factors on participation, such as attending different types of meetings, individual characteristics, and the characteristics of the neighborhoods in which participants lived. It turns out that attending one-to-one meetings and small, intensive meetings like research actions are much more powerful predictors of continued participation than individual or neighborhood characteristics. Indeed, many of the types of experiences that get us motivated and make us effective agents of community change are similar across diverse groups.

On the other hand, in a study of the psychological changes that take place as people participate in their communities (Christens, Speer & Peterson, 2011), we have uncovered some insights that can help to hone more tailored strategies for engaging and empowering populations with different characteristics. Specifically, our findings indicate that it is likely that those with higher and lower socioeconomic statuses will have different initial strengths and weaknesses related to their abilities to make community change.

Accordingly, different strategies might be needed to more effectively engage and empower different types of volunteers. On average, those with less household income and less formal education are likely to have a keener understanding of how social power operates in society. For example, they are more likely to understand how people with power use it to shape public perceptions and ideology. Yet, despite this knowledge, individuals with a lower socioeconomic status are less likely to feel as though they themselves can make change in their communities. In other words, they are relatively more cognitively empowered, but relatively less emotionally empowered than other populations. When working with groups that contain many people with low socioeconomic status, it is therefore critical to get people participating as often and as actively as possible, since we know that this will, over time, build their sense of social and political efficacy.

For groups organizing people with middle or higher socioeconomic status, the challenges are somewhat different. These individuals are likely to feel emotionally empowered, but tend to lack some of the critical understandings of power and social issues. What’s more, there is evidence that middle and upper class people do not necessarily gain these understandings as they participate more in communities and organizations. Therefore, when working with individuals and groups with higher socioeconomic status, it may be beneficial to engage in activities and reflections designed to raise critical consciousness and awareness of social power, rather than focusing primarily on encouraging community participation. In groups that are more socioeconomically diverse, both of these aims can be accomplished through one-to-one conversations geared toward building public relationships.


Giving volunteer leaders opportunities to take on meaningful responsibilities in the organization and to form meaningful interpersonal relationships – not only with other volunteers, but also with powerful decision-makers – can seem inefficient, beside the point, or even risky from an organizational standpoint. Research on community organizing suggests, however, that this is a path toward building a powerful grassroots organization with a broad base of active and empowered volunteers. Giving people opportunities to learn and develop through their first-hand experience is also the best way to instill skills and the necessary perspectives for leading community change initiatives.

This digest is part of a series of reports produced by the University
of Wisconsin–Madison Center for Nonprofits with support from the
Meta Schroeder Beckner Endowment of the School of Human Ecology.

Editor Sara G. Lam
Faculty Project Director
Brian D. Christens
Executive Director,
Center for Nonprofits
Jeanan Yasiri
The University of Wisconsin
Center for Nonprofits
1300 Linden Drive
Madison, WI 53706
ph: 608-262-2660
Further Resources
The research that informs the content of this digest can be found in the following
Christens, B. D. (2010). Public relationship building in grassroots community
organizing: Relational intervention for individual and systems change. Journal
of Community Psychology, 38(7), 886-900. doi:10.1002/jcop.20403
Christens, B. D., Peterson, N. A., & Speer, P. W. (2011). Community participation
and psychological empowerment: Testing reciprocal causality using a crosslagged
panel design with latent constructs. Health Education & Behavior, 38(4),
339-347, doi:10.1177/1090198110372880
Christens, B. D., & Speer, P. W. (2011). Contextual influences on participation in
community organizing: A multilevel longitudinal study. American Journal of
Community Psychology, 47(3-4), 253-263. doi:10.1007/s10464-010-9393-y
Christens, B. D., Speer, P. W., & Peterson, N. A. (2011). Social class as moderator
of the relationship between (dis)empowering processes and psychological
empowerment. Journal of Community Psychology, 39(2), 170-182. doi:10.1002/
[1] Psychological empowerment is defined here as the psychological aspects of
the processes by which people, organizations, and communities take control of
their affairs. Psychological empowerment is measured in these studies using
scales assessing self-perceptions of sociopolitical control and cognitive
understandings of power. See references for more details.
[2] Research summarized in this document was supported in part by the Skipper
Initiative for Community Organizing, a grant from the Raskob Foundation for
Catholic Activities, Inc., and was conducted in collaboration with affiliates of the
PICO National Network: http://www.piconetwork.org/