Nonprofit Study

Study: Nonprofits Promote Civic Engagement

By Anna Cearley

David Suarez

Nonprofit groups are becoming increasingly active through the promotion of causes on their online sites and serving as bridges of civic engagement, according to a new study by David Suarez, assistant professor at the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development.

The study, published in Administration & Society, notes that despite regulations that limit advocacy among nonprofit groups, many of these kinds of organizations are nonetheless using the Internet in creative yet legal ways.

In particular, groups that emphasize human rights, the environment and other policy entrepreneurs are consistently more likely to promote civic engagement and be involved in advocacy on the Internet, according to the study titled “Nonprofit Advocacy and Civic Engagement on the Internet.”

The research is significant because it provides support for evaluating nonprofits as bridges to civic engagement, and it also acknowledges the dual nature of nonprofits in roles as a social activist and a conventional service. The Internet’s wide reach in promoting messages and connecting individuals appears to be facilitating these characteristics.

The decline of civic engagement in American society has been documented by many scholars, most prominently by Robert Putnam in his landmark book Bowling Alone (2001). Such assessments have prompted discussions over how civic engagement could be rebooted via the Internet.

“Web sites provide a novel opportunity for nonprofits to scale their social impact and expand their civic purpose,” Suarez said. “The activist nature of rights groups and environmental organizations is well documented, and their mission as advocates for social change could lead organizations in these fields to promote more citizen participation.”

Suarez’ research is drawn from a representative sample of 501(c)(3) charitable operating organizations from the San Francisco Bay area. The 200 organizations represented all of the major nonprofit fields. The research was based on interviews and analysis of the nonprofit Web sites, and it involved coding for categorization.

Some key findings:

  • financial resources played little, if any, role in determining the use of e-advocacy;
  • rights groups, environmental organizations and policy entrepreneurs (organizations actively involved making policy) were more likely to discuss advocacy on their Web sites than other types of organizations;
  • policy entrepreneurs, rights groups and environmental organizations also are more likely to encourage civic engagement than other types of organizations; and
  • larger organizations are more likely to encourage civic engagement on the Internet than smaller organizations.

“It isn’t entirely surprising that rights groups and environmental organizations are involved in advocacy, but it is a bit more surprising that these same types of organizations are involved in civic engagement,” Suarez said. “So the bigger question becomes whether regulations on advocacy stifle nonprofit involvement in civic engagement.”

For more information on the study, visit