The Relationship of Leadership Quality to the Political Presence of Civic Associations
Civic associations can enhance democracy in many ways. They can afford a voice to otherwise marginalized groups and promote direct citizen participation; they can also provide forums for public debate and create space for citizens to practice civic skills. Past research has suggested that their effectiveness in performing these vital functions is largely a product of resources and context.
A 2011 study published in Perspectives on Politics, “The Relationship of Leadership Quality to the Political Presence of Civic Associations,” used data on 226 Sierra Club entities (55% of all entities of the Sierra Club) to determine the impact that variations in leadership quality had on the level of public presence enjoyed by the entity. The study’s authors are from Wellesley College, the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Harvard Kennedy School, the University of Wisconsin – Madison and Indiana University.
The study’s findings include:
- Organizations whose leaders report learning new skills are likely to have higher levels of political presence, across all three measures of political presence — fundraising results, media mentions and self-reported effectiveness.
- Associations with maximum levels of leadership skill annually raise an average of $5,371 more locally than those with minimum levels.
- When taken alone, the measure of “media mentions” was correlated more strongly with community context than leadership skills. Media agencies in different contexts are more (or less) inclined to report on the activities of certain advocacy groups independent of their quality of leaderships.
- Overall, “the skills and commitment of the association’s leaders are related to the political presence of the organization, above and beyond the effect of things like money, members, and politically favorable conditions.”
According to the researchers, “Understanding the way these organizations build democratic capacity has implications not only for civic and political participation, but also for our understanding of advocacy power and other public outcomes.”
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the Perspectives on Politics study “The Relationship of Leadership Quality to the Political Presence of Civic Associations."
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the issue-related Star-Ledger article "Environmentalists urge N.J. to Drop Proposed 'Waiver' Allowing Businesses to Bypass Regulations." Evaluate who is quoted and the effectiveness of the statements made. What's your assessment of the journalistic balance?
- Classroom discussion: When reporting on an issue that involves many different civic associations, how does a reporter decide whom to quote? How does a reporter deal with an important organization that does not have effective leadership? How should a reporter’s judgment about the relative influence of the group affect coverage?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.