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.”