To draw new and low-income Californians into greater civic engagement, helping them to create a new sense of community and become active in civic life.
From 1996 to 2005, The James Irvine Foundation supported the Organized Religion Initiative, a portfolio of grant investments that sought to capitalize on the potential of religious congregations to draw new and low-income Californians into greater civic engagement. Working with nine organizations, six of which participated in a multiyear evaluation, Irvine made grants totaling over $12 million to nurture and channel the civic potential in congregations.
In the theory of change for the initiative, efforts and results occurred on three levels: participating individuals, faith-based institutions and the communities in which these faith-based civic engagement organizations were located.
Expected results included:
The theory of change predicted that activities and outcomes on these three levels were interrelated: Individuals would grow in civic activity and in civic leadership capacity as they went through training and participated, with the support of these organizations, in community improvement and policy reform efforts. Organizations would grow stronger as they built up their membership base and leadership capacities, and as they achieved community changes that demonstrated their effectiveness and raised their visibility. Community improvements and policy reforms would result as organizations mobilized their membership and leadership capacities to identify community concerns and generate possible solutions.
The evaluation began in 2000 with a review of goals, strategies, accomplishments and evaluation capacities of over 20 faith-based organizations supported by Irvine’s former Civic Culture program. This phase initiated working relationships between the evaluation consultants and the faith-based civic engagement groups. It generated a shared logic model that identified the groups' and the Foundation’s common interest in achieving change at the three levels of participation: individuals, institutions and communities.
From 2001 to 2003, a second phase drew a smaller group of organizations together for joint evaluation design, capacity building and initial data collection. Nine organizations participated during 2001 and 2002, when a detailed outcomes framework for evaluating individual-level change was created. After initial data collection efforts in late 2002, three organizations opted out of the evaluation project, and a fourth reduced its involvement while five continued as primary participants. An initial report of emerging lessons was published in late 2003.
The final phase, from 2003 to 2005, followed through with further data collection and analysis, refinement of data collection tools, interpretation of data and communication of findings.
The goals of the evaluation were to build evaluation capacity in participating faith-based organizations; generate knowledge about faith-based civic engagement that could be shared with relevant audiences of practitioners, funders and policymakers; and learn how to adapt evaluation usefully to the context of faith-based civic engagement organizations. The evaluation was based on the premise that faith-based civic engagement organizations will learn more, achieve more and increase their accountability to key stakeholders as they strengthen internal theorizing about their change strategies, monitor relevant indicators more rigorously and reflect more regularly and analytically on data to guide planning. The project sought to foster sharper conceptualization, better information-gathering systems and better reflection practices among participants.
The evaluation model was collaborative and participatory. It was collaborative in a “hub-and-spokes” model with external evaluation consultants at the hub, working with each organization individually and also facilitating joint learning and evaluation efforts among the group of organizations. The evaluation was participatory in that organizations participated actively, as partners to the evaluation consultants, in each stage of the evaluation cycle: setting the focus, selecting methods and developing instruments for data collection, collecting data, interpreting data and using and communicating findings.
A collaborative, participatory approach was consistent with the core values of civic engagement that prize broad-based participation and collaborative, democratic decision-making. Participating organizations wanted to find evaluation approaches that would strengthen their “culture of conversation” rather than displace or devalue it. In this perspective, the evaluation work itself was a venue for practicing the principles and developing the capacities for effective civic engagement at the individual and organizational level.
The evaluation model included three main strategies:
Individualized coaching and technical assistance happened through site visits and telephone and email contact. The evaluation team helped the organizations to identify the focus and purpose of their data collection; co-developed surveys, interview guides and administrative data systems; provided guidance, encouragement and trouble-shooting support as the organizations collected and entered data; and worked with the organizations to interpret data, utilize findings and refine instruments.
Site visits were conducted at most organizations at least annually and sometimes more often. Members of the evaluation consulting team collected information through interviews with staff, pastors and lay leaders, and by observation of events including training sessions, board meetings, leadership retreats and public actions and conferences. Intensive, two-day site visits were conducted from 2003 to 2004.
Seminars or retreats focused on the topic of evaluation were the impetus for major conceptual advances in understanding the faith-based civic engagement work of these organizations, as the participants worked to identify common goals and challenges and to articulate the collective story of these efforts.
The faith-based institutions that participated in this initiative demonstrated an ability to draw newcomers and low-income Californians into civic life. These organizations built leadership skills, created strategic relationships with other congregations and promoted community improvements.
At its best, faith-based civic engagement, as practiced by these organizations, drew people into public life by awakening their self interests, building relationships that facilitate and sustain civic participation, and connecting present-day work on practical community problems to deeply rooted religious values, stories and imagery. These organizations helped individuals acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to work effectively and creatively on public problems. They nurtured identity and attitudinal shifts so that people saw themselves and their neighbors as members of a larger community capable of and called to contribute to — indeed, to be leaders of — collective work for the common good of that community. These outcomes were consistent across diverse cultural lines.
At the congregational level, these faith-based civic engagement organizations nurtured shifts both in internal culture and operations, and in external relationships, reputation and visibility.
At the community level, these organizations contributed to many tangible improvements, such as affordable housing development and code enforcement; increased access to health care; expanded school-community and police-community partnerships; and stronger policies protecting the stability of immigrant families. While credit for these community outcomes cannot be attributed solely to these organizations, the evaluation suggested high likelihood that their activities contributed substantially to meaningful policy and community improvement. Beyond any list of discrete changes, these organizations served to create the networks of relationships and assert the values of cooperation through which communities have ongoing resources for constructive collective action.