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Americans Are Favoring Indirect Civic Engagement

Americans have pulled back on their social activity during the pandemic, with many placing a priority on voting or educating themselves as opposed to taking more direct actions, according to a new study. That said, Americans still want social change – they just want the efforts to be led by corporations.

Part of the reason individuals have stepped away from civic engagement was health-related. Many traditional opportunities for activism were not available during periods of sheltering in place. In response, people turned to activities that reduced interpersonal interactions. Volunteering was seen as less important than voting, working together to rebuild (the report did not provide details on what this meant) or listening to and learning from others.

Look for distanced service to continue. One-third of respondents anticipate volunteering more through virtual opportunities than did so before the pandemic, according to Civic Life Today: The State of U.S. Civic Engagement, a survey-based study from Atlanta-based Points of Light, a nonprofit that seeks to create a culture of volunteerism.

What were people doing during the pandemic? A plurality cited educating themselves about a cause or social issue. Nearly half (46%) said adding to their knowledge was the most important action they could undertake. That response was followed by undertaking an action that would benefit someone else, which just over four in ten said was the second-most important action. That option was trailed by those who mentioned using their voice, such as by posting or sharing content on social media, which was done by 40% of respondents overall – and was even more popular among those seeking specifically to support COVID-19 issue awareness.

Other actions taken include donating their own goods to a cause or organization; making a charitable donation; starting to or increasing the purchase of goods or services from socially conscious producers; stopping buying certain products or services based on the social actions of their producers; and signing a petition.

Respondents were asked what the most important activities since the crest of the pandemic would be. More than four in ten (41%) said voting would be more important than ever, while just under one third (32%) agreed with the statement “We all must get involved to rebuild our communities and the country.” Slightly more than one in four (26%) say “It is more important than ever to listen to and learn different perspectives that educate, challenge and better prepare me to take action in my community,” and roughly one quarter (24%) believe volunteering will be more important than ever.

When respondents were moved to action on behalf of a cause, they often went in whole-heartedly. Among those that said they took action in support of a social issue, almost 30% took ten or more actions, while just over 10% took only one action, and fewer than 10% took two actions.

Among those not taking actions, lingering concerns about the pandemic proved the most stifling. Just less than one quarter (24%) said they were uncomfortable around potentially unvaccinated people. Another 21% were unable to financially support social issues or causes in general, while 18% cited the pandemic’s specific impact as curtailing their ability to support causes. A similar percentage were frank about their desire to “rather be doing other things in my free time” while 14% indicated a shift in priorities since the pandemic has made causes less important.

Some of these concerns can be ameliorated by creative thinking on the part of social organizations. “Virtual volunteer opportunities can help address these concerns by allowing people to participate from the safety of their homes,” the report authors wrote. The public is accepting of these opportunities: 65% of respondents indicated that virtual volunteering would be the primary way they volunteer during the next month. Those virtual opportunities will draw from an increasingly large pool of support: 36% plan to volunteer more than they did before the pandemic.

Report authors expressed concern about the self-education process, wondering whether respondents are turning to nonprofits, NGOs and causes for information, and whether they are receiving the information they need. 

They might have a point. Respondents are looking toward companies to lead on social issues, with nearly six in ten saying companies have a responsibility to share and promote social issues. Just under 30% believe companies should promote social issues through ads, events or public programs, and a similar percentage want companies to offer employees opportunities to support a social issue through fundraising or volunteer programs. But only around one third of respondents felt it was appropriate for companies to ask consumer to act on behalf of a social cause.

The report is based on a mobile-optimized online survey of a national representative sample of 1,500 adults age 18-65 in the U.S. Samples based on ethnic and demographic composition. A full copy of the report is available here.

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