Civic Commons: an expanding digital town square

Communities / Article

Knight Foundation funds the Civic Commons to provide new ways for citizens to learn about local issues. Below, Mike Shafarenko, president of the Civic Commons, writes about a new community partnership.

At the Civic Commons, we’ve always dreamed big dreams for how citizens become more aware, more engaged and more likely to influence major community decisions—and for how community leaders embrace and facilitate that participation. With a $600,000 grant from Knight Foundation and a strategic partnership with ideastream, a civic engagement pioneer, those dreams are that much closer to reality.  

Since its inception in 2010 with the support of Knight Foundation, the Civic Commons has sought to encourage people to talk and act on important issues in their communities. Our goals have been to strengthen civic dialogue, engagement and action while developing a business model that would reduce the program’s reliance on philanthropic support.  

With Google, Facebook and Twitter having fundamentally shifted the way people interact, consume information, purchase products and spend leisure time, could Civic Commons shift the way they govern their communities? Could community decisions be reached through the facilitation of deliberative dialogue, both online and in-person? And, could the online portion be an amalgamation of the individual tools that were proving to be effective in the “new democracy” arena (e.g. petition tools, voting tools, games, citizen journalism)?

We knew success would take a long time to achieve. No single format, game, gimmick, tool or app would win the day. Indeed, it would be a combination of many of those elements and a lot of experimentation that would derive something resembling our vision.

Along the way, we would be creating a new market. Most nonprofits and civic institutions didn’t (and most still don’t) have engagement budgets, nor did they extensively plan engagement initiatives. If anything, the closest bucket our work fit into was the already stretched thin marketing line item comprised of social media consulting and advertising, radio/TV spots and glossy annual report expenses.

Nonetheless, we had a number of successes on both fronts.  Our work helped an environmentally passionate mechanic bring greater accountability to his local school district’s sustainability efforts. It provided a platform for city and community development leaders to gather input on the redevelopment of a major downtown Cleveland community. It served as a strategic planning engagement tool for a major university, connected urban innovators in Detroit and is currently the online engagement hub for a national dialogue on mental health.  The paid projects we worked on have generated more than $250,000 in revenues since the beginning of 2011.

Through our evolution, it became clear that “going it alone” was not going to scale our efforts nor sustain them over time. If we were to continue to drive our mission and vision, we needed to find a sustainable home – one that embraced our efforts, had a stable and reputable presence in the community and an interest in combining our engagement tools and tactics as part of its operations. It would be even better if it produced or distributed a steady stream of timely content; that would help attract an audience to our platform and combine the powers of media and engagement to improve communities.

We had a few informal partnership conversations in late 2012 and ultimately found the perfect match in ideastream, a public broadcasting entity that applies the power of media to education, culture and citizenship.  Our integration with ideastream will preserve our brand, our online platform and other developed assets. We will continue to provide our service offerings and modify them to enhance our clients’ ability to engage their stakeholders. And, we will complement the local public radio and television content in a way that allows community members to not only consume information but to discuss it and turn it into action.

Ultimately, we hope our partnership with ideastream pioneers a model for community impact – one where the myriad of community decisions are informed by diverse and educated voices and groups of individuals take it upon themselves to resolve issues proactively and deliberatively.  We’ve spent the past three years learning how to walk and we look forward to the sprint ahead.