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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How can nonprofit organizations measure community engagement?

Nonprofit organizations have the ability to connect and mobilize individuals. By creating opportunities for engagement, the nonprofit sector is responsible for building cohesion and social capital. According to Frumkin (2002), nonprofit organizations are “ideal vehicles for foraging networks of weak ties that link people together.” Putnam (1994) further illustrates the link between engagement and social capital. He describes social capital as “those features of social organization, such as trust, norms and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions.” Understanding the benefits of building social capital may be effective in creating a participatory culture.   

Social capital is defined as the “shared values, ideas, norms, and culture [that] shape the kind of political and administrative efficacy that enhances collective action, democracy, and effectiveness in public service delivery” (Kalu, 2010). Existing research identifies gaps in the ways in which community engagement is measured. However, several studies have been conducted on social capital and the benefits individuals can receive from various forms of community engagement. In addition to encouraging collaboration and shared purpose, nonprofit organizations should ultimately aim to achieve sustained engagement and a participatory culture (Atlee, 2009). On the whole, literature suggests that nonprofits play a large role in promoting engagement within local communities, but few studies suggest ways in which this engagement can be measured or used to create a working model for nonprofit organizations (Shier, 2014). Nonprofit organizations can benefit from this working model as it can be a useful tool in achieving a participatory culture.

“Community engagement fosters the transformative relationships and increased ownership necessary to build sustainable communities of opportunity” (Bergstrom, 2013). Moreover, an engaged community can lead to a more empowered community that works collectively to solve problems and implement change. In order to create an involved community, Bergstrom recommends nonprofit organizations “work through existing networks of community-based organizations that serve and organize in diverse cultural communities to identify the leaders to work with” (2013). 

In addition, Bergstrom advises nonprofit organizations to create relationships with community members through community meetings and cultural events and to develop an awareness of racial and economic disparities. Nonprofit organizations can bridge cultural divides and overcome barriers to engagement by learning from leaders of non-English-speaking communities and translating materials or providing interpretation at community meetings. Nonprofit organizations can be mindful of additional barriers and identify trusted facilitators to bridge gaps. Incentives and accommodations for engagement can also encourage individuals to participate, for instance evening or weekend meetings to accommodate working parents. Childcare, meals, and transit can also be helpful to previously disengaged individuals. Continued engagement can be supported through relationship-building, opportunities to join decision-making boards and commissions, advisory groups, task forces, focus groups, and town hall meetings (Bergstrom, 2013). Moreover, it is important for nonprofit organizations to demonstrate the community’s hard work with tangible evidence of change. 

In short, research shows that community engagement can be sustained by creating opportunities for reflection, collaboration and contribution. Evidence shows that community engagement has been achieved through efforts of local nonprofit organizations. The creation of community-based programs, including clean-up projects and community gardens, allows for individuals to participate in community development. Furthermore, evidence shows that community engagement can be observed. Nonprofit organizations can collaborate with one another to better understand if they share donors and volunteers. Organizations can also take note of the ways that individuals in their service area spend their free time and create opportunities for individuals who want to be minimally involved. Lastly, nonprofit organizations can challenge individuals to provide feedback and suggestions for areas they would like to see changed. There should be an opportunity for community members to express concerns, and nonprofit organizations can focus on working with communities to execute change. Nonprofit organizations can measure community engagement in a number of ways. There is no golden standard.



Atlee, T. (2009, May 1). Core Principles for Public Engagement. Lecture presented at National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD), the International Association for Public Participaction (IAP2). Retrieved September 11, 2016, from    

Bergstrom, D., Rose, K., Olinger, J., & Holley, K. (2013). Sustainable Communities Initiative: The Community Engagement Guide for Sustainable Communities, The. J. Affordable Hous. & Cmty. Dev. L., 22, 191.

Frumkin, P. (2002). On being nonprofit: A conceptual and policy primer. Harvard University Press.

Kalu, K. N., & Remkus, B. W. (2010). The evolution of social capital and civic engagement between nonprofit networks and county representatives a social constructivist approach. Social Science Computer Review, 28(1), 135-150.

Putnam, R. D., Leonardi, R., & Nanetti, R. Y. (1994). Making democracy work: Civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton university press.

Shier, M. L., Handy, F., & McDougle, L. M. (2014). Nonprofits and the promotion of civic engagement: A conceptual framework for understanding the "civic footprint" of nonprofits within local communities. Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research, 5(1), 57-75. Retrieved from


Shayla Hubbard completed her studies at Arizona State University after earning degrees in Biological Sciences, B.S., and Nonprofit Leadership and Management, MNLM. In that time, she completed an undergraduate honors thesis entitled the Differing Community Perceptions of GMOs and her master's capstone on measuring community engagement.


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