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Guest blogger Cindy Gibson is the Principal of Cynthesis Consulting, which specializes in public policy research and analysis, program development, strategic planning, marketing, and communications for nonprofit and philanthropic organizations across the country.
Conventional wisdom suggests that momentum can be a powerful driver of change, especially when it’s accompanied by a sense of optimism that change is possible. But is it?
Apparently it is, according to research that the Case Foundation recently gathered to determine whether its “Change Begins with Me” campaign was able to sustain the civic involvement of millions of Americans who jumped into the 2008 election campaign with both feet, especially young people and people who’d never previously been involved. The research shows that an overwhelming majority of commitment makers have begun fulfilling their commitment, financial resources were a major factor for those who did not follow up, and wanting to "be the change" inspired people to action.
Launched after the historical election of Barack Obama, the campaign asked ordinary Americans to turn inauguration excitement into real commitments to change their neighborhoods, communities, and even the world for the better. The response was overwhelming, with more than 12,000 people submitting their commitments. Clearly, there was—and continues to be—a hunger for connection with others in communities who want to work together to decide what matters to them, form solutions, and take action together.
Commitments ranged from the personal—volunteering more, contributing money to a favorite charity, spending more time with the elderly, and mentoring young people—to the community—launching new businesses to grow local economies, creating a bioregional model of ecocracy, establishing an eco-friendly school, and using technology to help refugees start new lives.
So, what’s happened since then? Have people honored their commitments? Does Change really Begin With Me?
To answer those questions, the foundation conducted an online survey to a sample of about 4,800 respondents—both winners and non-winners—to find out what actually happened. While by no means a scientific poll, the results were helpful in illuminating whether and to what extent the momentum around the election season has continued (and will continue).
Respondents were asked about whether they’d taken action to follow up on their commitments, how much progress they’d made, and whether they would continue to be involved in similar efforts in the future, among others.
- Ninety percent of commitment makers said they had taken action to honor their commitments, with half saying that they had either met their goals or had a little way to go. A significant percentage, however, said they’d moved forward but not as much as they’d hoped, and an additional 11 percent said they were “only a little away from” their starting point.
- Winners were slightly more likely to have progressed or completed their commitments, indicating that recognition may have been an incentive to action. Of those who did not make as much progress, one in three said that not having adequate financial resources was a major factor in their not following up
- When those who completed their project were asked what they thought was the biggest benefit of doing so, one in four identified “being able to encourage people around me to get involved in “being the change” as their top response.
- The second most common benefits were “feeling like I made a difference in my community” and “getting the job done,” indicating that people generally identified two levels of benefits—individual and external (community). The lowest response was “having the opportunity to sustain my interest and/or involvement in the presidential campaign/election.
What Was the Inspiration?
- One of the top responses as to what inspired people to submit commitments for change was that “they wanted to make a difference” in their communities and that “civic engagement and service” were important values to them.
- An equal number of respondents, however, said that “nothing, really” inspired them because they’d “been engaged in these kinds of efforts for a long time,” indicating that the competition may have had more appeal to people who were already quite engaged. In fact, more than half of the respondents indicated that before the competition, they were “very involved in their communities.” A much smaller percentage—less than twenty percent—said that they were not at all or only a little involved in their communities.
- Auspiciously, all but one participant said they were “definitely” likely to get involved in similar efforts in the future.
Who Were the Changemakers?
The demographics of respondents tended to match those of volunteering and service more broadly.
- Nearly three-quarters of respondents in both groups were female, with more than half being Caucasian.
- African Americans were the second highest group, with Latinos following closely behind.
- People with lower incomes were also more likely to participate; a little more than half of the respondents had incomes of less than $50,000 annually.
- The greatest number of respondents were aged 46 to 60, with only 12 percent in the 26-35 age group.
Numbers only tell part of the story, however.
When respondents were asked to tell us in their own words how the experience had affected them, there was nearly unanimous sentiment that their involvement had, indeed, made a difference. “Working with disadvantaged youth really opened my eyes to their lives,” one participant said. “And it’s affected my long term goal of having children. I will most certainly gather up as many kids as I can, who are in limbo between permanent foster care, home or treatment facilities etc and be a safe haven for them during transition. It's a lot of work but they deserve it.”
So, does “change begin with me?” One changemaker thought so. “I found that what people have said—you have to be the change you wish to see in the world.” Another agreed: “I’m doing something that needs to be done.” Let’s hope that they’re emblematic of thousands of others who not only participated in this contest but those whose lives their efforts have touched.
For more reflections and stories from the Change Begins With Me campaign, check out the interviews of our inauguration trip winner, Gerald Jimenez, and our volunteer vacation winner, Keisha McCoy-Wilson.