- Social Media
- Active Citizenship
- Good Giving
- Corporate Responsibility
- Be Fearless
In 2006, the Case Foundation set out to find an answer to a question critical to its efforts to increase civic engagement in the United States: Had the millions of dollars that had been funneled into service and civic engagement programs in previous years led to those activities and values becoming embedded more deeply into Americans’ lives?
Answering that question turned out to be tougher than figuring out how many trees were planted, rivers cleaned up, or people voted. To find the answer, the Foundation talked to people who'd been writing about service and civic engagement, thinking about it, and doing it in real communities. They said yes, there is a deep tradition of service in America. The catch? Many people still felt powerless to address important things affecting their lives—things like what was happening in their schools, decisions about zoning or land use, or tax spending.
These and many other findings were compiled and published later that year by the Foundation in Citizens at the Center: A New Approach to Civic Engagement. Based on numerous interviews with diverse cross-sector groups of practitioners and thought leaders, as well as analysis of field research, the paper suggested that embedding civic engagement more deeply in communities would require going beyond asking people to plug into programs that encouraged them to “do good.” Rather, there was a need for the creation of more civic spaces that would allow diverse groups of people to connect with each other (including those they might disagree with), discuss what matters most, form solutions, and take action together to address them.
This citizen-centered approach was off-the-radar but not a new concept. The Case Foundation simply believed it deserved more attention—and it did get attention. The publication was disseminated and requested in the thousands and prompted numerous discussions at major conferences. It also appeared on a vast array of websites, blogs, and news outlets around the country.
Clearly, people wanted to know more about this “new” approach. But what did it really look like?
To answer that question, the Case Foundation designed the Make It Your Own Awards (MIYO). The goal of the new grantmaking initiative was to showcase citizen-centered efforts going on around the country, rendering a nuanced concept into something that people could easily recognize.
In early 2007, the Foundation began designing the program, which it envisioned as occurring almost entirely online and using the most current technological tools available at the time. As it dove into the process, the Foundation realized that as a member of the nonprofit sector and civic engagement movement, it too had a responsibility to walk the talk of what it was advocating. Specifically, it needed to open up the process to real people and invite their participation in a process that was usually left to experts.
To that end, the Case Foundation designed a grantmaking program that would be almost entirely shaped by people outside its doors—from determining the grant guidelines and judging criteria to reviewing applications and voting on the winners.
This process, which the Foundation coined as “citizen-centered philanthropy,” caught the attention of The New York Times' philanthropy reporter Stephanie Strom who said:
In a first, a major foundation is offering the public a direct role in deciding who should receive some of its money, a process typically shrouded in mystery.
Recognizing that citizen-centered processes are not mob rule, but rather, a partnership between experts and the public, the Foundation also invited several leaders in the civic engagement field to work with the public reviewers to help shepherd this new process forward. Together, this unique group with its diverse range of experiences and perspectives reviewed 4,641 applications, winnowing this down to 100 semi-finalists, and ultimately, 20 grant winners who were able to compete for four larger grant awards through a public voting process.
In March 2008, after 15,232 votes were cast, the Case Foundation announced its Final Four winners, all of whom were committed to making their communities better places to live through citizen-centered engagement. These winners, and all of the Top 20, not only received money, but also, hands-on technical assistance and coaching tools to help them fundraise and publicize their efforts more broadly. They, as well as all those who made the Top 100, also received customized, advanced widgets and web pages on the Case Foundation website to help them with their fundraising and outreach.
From the moment this initiative was launched, the Foundation has collected data about almost every step of it—from asking external reviewers for their opinions to surveying groups of winners to see how they were progressing. In 2009, one year after grant awards, that data was analyzed by a set of outside evaluators to determine whether and to what extent this program had been able to help strengthen and support citizen-centered approaches to civic engagement. The Foundation also checked back two years after the grants were awarded to see what had transpired with grantees.
This report summarizes what the Case Foundation learned as a result of this challenging process, including what worked and what didn’t, and whether and how grantees were able to achieve their goals. By presenting this information as openly as possible, the Foundation hopes that it is providing a useful road map to others interested in advancing this work—citizens, funders, educators, businesspeople, legislators, and many others—in communities across the country.