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Follow up on Systematic Civic Stewardship Webinar: Guest Blog Post by William M. Snyder

Strengthening Civic Engagement: Systematic Civic Stewardship

Author:  William M. Snyder,
Note: This is a follow up article for the recent webinar Systematic Civic Stewardship: An Organizing Model for Leading Change in the Social Sector, featuring William M. Snyder of the Social Capital Group.


My interest in “systematic civic stewardship” started 35 years ago when I was an undergraduate interested in social change, but disenchanted with the options at hand. The 1960’s talk of revolution was long gone; local non-profits were making little headway; and working with gang members at a neighborhood community center reinforced my belief that we needed system-level change.

My senior year, I signed up for a seminar that was doing the unthinkable—inviting professors from the business school (“across the river” from Harvard Yard) to join social-psychology researchers (with their radical leanings, tattered jackets, and unkempt hair) to figure out how to “democratize the workplace.” The idea was that recent research on group dynamics and participative leadership might have some relevance in the business world. This was when Japanese automakers were scooping up U.S. market share because they were building better cars for less. And apparently this had something to do with teamwork and frontline employees’ ownership of quality and cost targets. I figured that if social psychology principles made any sense, they should apply in the civic context as well as in families and the workplace. Ironically, given their reputation for self-centeredness, it seemed that businesses (or at least a few of them) were most ready to invest in radically participative, collaborative ways to achieve breakthrough results. I thought large-scale firms might serve as a kind of societal petri dish. I wondered, What could we learn from pioneering businesses about organizing for systemic change in the civic sector?

As it turns out, quite a lot. Here are examples of effective business practices that civic groups can use to help their communities and cities flourish:

  • Clear measurable goals and groups that take ownership for achieving them;
  • Information on progress to guide efforts, learn from mistakes, and recognize accomplishments;
  • Skills in participative problem-solving, communication, project-management, conflict mediation, and leadership;
  • Network structures that facilitate synergistic collaboration and learning across boundaries;
  • Self-funding mechanisms for groups that promote valued outcomes;
  • Shared sense of mission, values, and mutual commitment.

While these practices have been applied in the civic arena (for example, in terms of “adaptive leadership” and “collective impact”), private-sector organizations have far surpassed others in their sustained efforts to institutionalize them. Of course, U.S. businesses benefit from tens of billions spent annually for education, research, and consulting, while we get by on perhaps 1% of that in the civic sector.

Now we need to increase radically our investments in civic stewardship, especially because we have made so little progress on social, economic, and environmental outcomes in the U.S. over the last 40 years. Indeed, measures of poverty, drop-out rates, health-care costs, incarceration, affordable housing, environmental risks, and social and economic disparities are either unchanged or worse than they were in the 1970’s, despite decades of economic growth, policy-making, technology advances, and trillions spent in means-tested programs. Meanwhile, pundits lament the corresponding decline of social capital over this period, and a report on 20 years of community-change initiatives found that “few (if any)” had achieved population-level changes in areas such as poverty or child and family wellbeing (Voices from the Field III, 2010: 15).   

Yet there is much room for hope. In recent years, we have seen a sharp rise in social entrepreneurship, participation in public problem-solving activities, and social media applications for civic advocacy and organizing. And there is a growing contingent of players working on a synergistic array of civic stewardship capabilities that show considerable promise. These “civic specialists” are spurring innovations in areas such as “deliberative democracy,” social technologies, “big data,” monetization, urban design, leadership development, and new social movements. They are working with residents, activists, institution leaders, policy-makers, and funders to build systems and structures that can scaffold our collective capacity to foster civic wellbeing.

A new discipline is emerging, and if it follows precedent, civic stewardship will play as prominent a role for communities and cities in the 21st century as management has for businesses in the 20th.

I believe we can best advance this work by building the discipline in practice, as a community. In fact, I feel much the same way I did 35 years ago; that we are on the threshold of a communal learning journey with tremendous opportunities for both important conceptual discoveries and meaningful societal contributions. Here in the Boston area, a number of people and organizations are beginning to explore this work together. We are all crossing that same Charles River, now in both directions. And we are only one node in a growing network of civic stewardship practitioners in the U.S. and beyond (as is apparent on sites such as and

My LLC webinar on systematic civic stewardship provided a rough outline of this emergent discipline. If you are interested in learning more, see a proposal for an “action-learning lab” at And please let me know if you have questions, comments, or recommendations. There is much more to learn!



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