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For civic associations, effective leadership produces organizational success

Alexis de Tocqueville observed nearly 200 years ago that American civic associations served as "schools of democracy" where members learned the skills of citizenship. A recent study by Indiana University faculty member Matthew Baggetta and several colleagues suggests that such organizations are more effective if they embrace that Tocquevillian role.

The study found that associations that invest in recruiting, training and engaging volunteer leaders do a much better job than others of representing the interests and beliefs of their members -- even if they lack extensive resources for advocacy -- said Baggetta, assistant professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU Bloomington.

"The local organizations that had the most success were the ones that were best at developing leadership," Baggetta said. "They invested time and energy in leadership development and, as a result, they ended up with more political presence."

The article, "The Relationship of Leadership Quality to the Political Presence of Civic Associations," was published this spring in the journal Perspectives on Politics. Baggetta's co-authors are Hahrie Han of Wellesley College, Kenneth T. Andrews of the University of North Carolina, Marshall Ganz of Harvard University and Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin.


Photo by Vicky Sawyer

IU researchers found that local Sierra Club leaders who developed the skills to engage members through hikes, bird outings and other activities also produced organizations that were more effective in advocacy.

The study draws on an original dataset of information on the practices and characteristics of more than 300 local and state Sierra Club organizations. The data were compiled when the environmental group approached Ganz and asked for help with an evaluation of the organization. Ganz assembled a team that included Baggetta, then a graduate student in sociology at Harvard.

The study used detailed surveys and interviews with Sierra Club volunteer leaders and access to information about member characteristics and club finances and activities to examine the traits and effectiveness of local organizations.

The researchers found that local organizations varied widely in their focus on developing effective leaders and providing training and support to improve the leaders' skills. Groups that did a better job of developing leaders, they found, were likely to have a stronger "political presence," a term that refers to visibility and impact in the local community. Mentions in local news media and effectiveness in raising money and recruiting members were seen as measures of political presence.

"Our central claim is that the work civic associations do in developing the quality of their leaders informs and supports the work they do in public advocacy -- and that without considering leadership quality, we cannot fully understand how some civic associations achieve higher levels of political presence than others," the authors write.

Previous research on volunteer-based civic associations, Baggetta said, tended to combine them with advocacy groups that represent the interests of members. The belief was that the effectiveness of such organizations depended on their ability to raise and spend money, along with the friendliness of the political climate to their particular cause.

But civic associations are different, the study points out. They rely on locally developed leaders. And the work that's done internally, such as engaging members and motivating volunteers, is possibly more important than the external work of raising money and lobbying government officials.

"It's not just what you have. It's what you do with what you have," Baggetta said. In other words, organizations with effective leaders can overcome a lack of resources or a hostile political climate.

The message for civic associations, Baggetta said, is that devoting resources to recruiting and training local leaders will pay off in improved effectiveness.

Perspectives on Politics is a publication of the American Political Science Association; its editorial offices are at IU Bloomington. The association leadership article can be read online at the Perspectives on Policy website.