Moving Volunteers from Service to Civic Engagement



Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]Welcome to the Volunteer Management online course series, presented to you by the Corporation for National and Community Service in conjunction with Hands On Network. Hands On Network is an internationally recognized volunteer management resource developing a new generation of volunteer engagement techniques — tailored to today’s community service organization.

Moving Volunteers from Service to Civic Engagement

Volunteers can be your organization’s greatest asset as they significantly increase your capacity to serve the community. In this online session we explore ways to create meaningful service opportunities for volunteers in order to increase their sense of civic responsibility. As we see it, once you deepen the civic understanding of your volunteers, their overall impact and commitment to serve will become greater. We hope you thoroughly enjoy this course!

For questions and/or to receive additional volunteer management information, contact Hands On Network at

Learning Objectives

At the completion of this course, you should be able to:

  • Better understand the definition of civic engagement
  • Create a framework for understanding civic involvment as it relates to volunteering
  • Investigate ways to apply civic skills and related concepts to volunteering
  • Deepen the civic commitment of volunteers through reflection and other activities

Defining Civic Involvement

How do you define civic involvement? In this section, we spend some time crafting personal definitions of civic involvement and discussing the implications of defining civic involvement.

We introduce the concept of reflection and then combine reflection and meaningful service with the intention of deepening the civic commitment of your volunteers.


In this section on Defining Civic Involvement we will:

  • Define terms for civic involvement
  • Review the rules for national service programs
  • Define reflection
  • Explore reflection activity ideas

Let's begin by looking at the Service to Civics model...

The Service to Civics Model

National service programs engage volunteers in a variety of service efforts. Whether your program works strictly with national service volunteers, or reaches out to involve the broader community in service activities, think about what those volunteers actually do.

When volunteers participate in a service project:

  • Do they make the connection between their service and a deeper community issue?
  • Do they reflect on their activities to see the impact they’ve made?
  • Most importantly, what else do they do to impact the issue?

We all have the ability to make positive social change in the world. There is no road map or blueprint for becoming more civically involved. We each have different styles, comforts, and methods for getting things done.

Ultimately, a healthy democracy starts with each of us being engaged in meaningful endeavors for the public good. Volunteering is one way to be civically engaged. To that end, it is critical that each of us discovers the path to greater civic involvement that most suits our style, interests, and talents.

The Path to Greater Civic Involvement

In this part of the course, we explore the concept of guiding volunteers on the path of volunteer service to greater civic involvement.

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We will explore how meaningful volunteer service, coupled with reflection, can lead to further civic action, as shown in this Service to Civics diagram. In service-learning a best practice is "reflection throughout" and not just at the end. Does that resonate with you as an important component of the diagram and model?

Along this journey you will explore your own path for deeper civic involvement, while you build your toolbox for creating deeper civic involvement with the volunteers in your national service program.

A Definition of Civic Engagement

What does civic involvement mean to you? According to the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, active citizenship is defined as "the act of contributing to public life and participating in solving public problems." Although there is no universally agreed-upon definition of what active civic involvement looks like, for the purpose of this course, let's use this definition and think about civic involvement in terms of "engaging in public problem solving."

Rules for National Service Programs

When representing a Corporation for National and Community Service program, don’t forget that there are limits to the kinds of civic activities one can undertake while “on duty.” Check the provisions governing your program to make sure that you are in compliance.

Defining Reflection

Reflection “the fixing of the mind on some subject: serious thought; contemplation.”
– Webster's Dictionary

Reflection for Service

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]In order to learn about the service that volunteers have provided, reflection is a structured time to think and express ideas through a variety of methods including writing, sharing, and other creative methods like art or music. Reflection may include acknowledging and/or sharing reactions, feelings, interpretations, observations, and thoughts about a volunteer activity.

During reflection activities, participants may:

  • Examine what they learned from the service activity
  • Discuss problems encountered and obstacles overcome
  • Celebrate their successes
  • Place meaning on their participation

Consider this:

Imagine that you’re about to wash the dishes. You’re filling the sink with water; you’ve got the stopper in the bottom of the sink... The phone rings, so you stop what you’re doing and pick up the phone... Your friend needs a ride, so you run out the door, inadvertently leaving the water running with the sink plugged...

When you come home, the kitchen is flooding. What’s the first thing you’re going to do? Grab a mop? NO, turn off the faucet!

Often when we volunteer we spend our time mopping up the water without addressing the fact that the faucet is still running. Reflection encourages volunteers to explore why the faucet is still running and is the primary avenue for connecting service with greater civic involvement. Through the process of reflection, volunteers have the opportunity to create a larger social construct around the service they are providing.

Reflection provides the structured time for volunteers to make the connection between the service they are providing and how it relates to larger social issues at times.

Activities and Templates

Here is an activity you can use to apply the civic involvement concepts discussed so far in this course:


Take a few minutes to brainstorm around the following questions on civic involvement and active citizenship:

  • What types of activities do civically engaged people undertake (e.g., voting)?
  • How are civically engaged people different from non-civically engaged people?
  • What characteristics does a civically active person have?

Based on the ideas you generated from brainstorming: How do you define civic involvement?

Ideas for Using Reflection

As you design service activities for your volunteers, think about ways to integrate reflection opportunities into their service. Here are a few easy ways to add a reflection component to your volunteer activity:

  • Postcard Home:
    Have volunteers write a note to remind themselves about what they learned from the volunteer activity, why it was important to them, or what they achieved. Explain that the note will be mailed to them at a later date. If time permits, allow the opportunity, for those who want to, to share what they wrote. A couple of weeks after the service experience, send the postcards back to the volunteers.
  • Group Journal or “Reflection Wall”:
    Put out a notebook for a group journal, or hang a large piece of paper on the wall for a reflection wall. During their service, have volunteers share their thoughts about the volunteer experience through words or pictures. You can then use the group journal, or the ideas provided by the volunteers, as a starting point for a group reflection at the end of the service experience.
  • Reflection Discussion with Critical Questions:
    Sometimes, one of the quickest ways to facilitate a group reflection is with a discussion. The reflection discussion requires no materials and just 10-15 minutes of your time.
    One way to think about facilitating a reflection discussion is to make certain you focus on three types of questions to ask your volunteers: 1. What? Ask volunteers to report on what happened on the volunteer project and what was accomplished; 2. So what? Ask volunteers to analyze the service experience, what they learned, and why it matters; 3. What’s next? Ask volunteers how the volunteer experience will shape their future actions and what next steps they can take to further address the issues uncovered through their service. Some questions you might ask when facilitating a reflection discussion include:
    What happened today? What was the effect of your service?
    What was your first impression when you arrived? How did that impression change over the course of your service experience?
    What do you see as the biggest challenge facing this organization and others working for change around this issue?
    How does your experience today relate to the rest of your life? Will you do or think anything differently because of your experience today? What have you learned about yourself as part of this experience?
  • Informal Discussion During the Volunteer Activity:
    Service projects that involve everyone in similar “non-thinking” tasks (like painting) are a great venue for this type of reflection, because you can use questions to prompt conversation during volunteer activities. Volunteers can discuss issue information while they work.


Now that we’ve defined civic involvement and reflection, and explored some ideas about how to increase the civic involvement of your volunteers, let’s take some time to explore how you can further apply these concepts.

In the next section, Exploring the Dimensions of Civic Participation, we examine how individuals are influenced and inspired to become more civically involved.

Exploring the Dimensions of Civic Participation

So far, we’ve created a framework for understanding civic involvement as it relates to volunteering. Now we’re going to examine some of the underlying issues that shape the needs in our communities. Once we’ve come to a deeper understanding of these issues, we can identify the unique ways in which each of us can become more civically involved.

The activities in this section will help you develop a greater understanding of how to deepen your own civic involvement, and are easily adaptable to use with your volunteers and national service participants.


In this section on Exploring the Dimensions of Civic Participation we will:

  • Discuss root causes and pathways to action

  • Create a plan for civic involvement

  • Identify spheres of influence and action

Let's begin by defining and identifying root causes...

Understanding Root Causes

Identifying the underlying issues that are facing our world helps us to break down what, at times, may seem to be insurmountable issues into more manageable pieces.

Once we have a clearer understanding of what the issues are, we can identify potential solutions and small steps that each of us can take to address these issues.Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]

Q: What are some ways that you can work with the volunteers in your program to help them explore the root causes underlying the community issues that your national service organization is working to address?

A: The first step in this process is providing your volunteers and national service members with context for their service.

What Is the Context of Volunteer Service?

Ask youself the following questions; clear answers will help you to provide a good context for your volunteers regarding the impact of their service:

  • Who are our clients and/or service recipients?
  • What are the social and environmental issues our organization is working to address?
  • What are the greatest challenges facing our organization?
  • How will the work our volunteers are undertaking impact the organization’s mission?
  • What are the barriers to implementing lasting change around the social or environmental issue our organization addresses?

Once your volunteers understand root causes of the social and enviornmental issues faced by the community they serve, and the impact they can have on these issues, you can provide further opportunities to consider how their involvement can fit within this context by helping them create a plan for greater civic involvement

Creating a Plan for Civic Involvement

Taking the time to create civic involvement plans with your volunteers will help to move them from reflection to action along the Service to Civics model.

Civic Involvement Planning Activity

Here are some good ways to help volunteers and service members develop a plan for civic involvement:

  1. Have volunteers brainstorm a list of characteristics embodied by active citizens.
  2. Using the list, ask volunteers to think about what characteristics from the list they would like to cultivate in themselves.
  3. Volunteers can then take each characteristic they identified and draft a plan of actions to cultivate each of these along a timeline.

The plans should list commitments that will occur over the next week, month, five years, decade, and lifetime.

As we’ve discussed so far in this section of the course, two of the primary ways to engage your volunteers on the Service to Civics continuum are:

1. Helping them to connect with and explore the deeper issues impacting the work of your organization.

2. Engaging them in creating a plan for deeper civic involvement..

Now let's look at examples of activities that you can replicate with your volunteers and service members to provide them with additional context for their service and civic involvement.

Activities and Templates

Here are some training and implementation tools to apply the civic involvement concepts discussed so far in this course. You can try these exercises now to enhance your own learning experience, then duplicate these activities to use with your volunteers and national service members to explore root causes and plan for greater civic involvement.

Root Causes and Pathways to Action

In this activity you will define and discuss underlying issues facing our nation (and world), and explore ways that you can begin to address them. Consider the following questions:

  1. What do you feel are the greatest challenges facing our country, or your community?
  2. What are the underlying causes of these challenges?
    Try to do some serious exploring to uncover root causes. For example: If the challenge is homelessness, one of the causes might be a lack of affordable housing. Take it a step further and ask yourself:
    Why is there a lack of affordable housing?
  3. What action steps could you take to address the causes of these challenges?
  4. Choose one of the challenges you identified in question 1, and spend a few moments thinking about what the world would look like if this challenge had been overcome:
    What had to happen for this to occur?

Spheres of Influence and Action

The Spheres of Influence and Action activity is an easy-to-facilitate activity that can be replicated and used to guide your volunteers in creating a civic involvement plan. In this activity you will identify at least four different areas in your life where you can define concrete steps to work toward positive community change.

Begin with a diagram or picture that looks like this:

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Step 1: Choose four spheres of influence in your life (family, friends, state, solar system, etc.) and record one of these in each of the four circles underneath the words Sphere of Influence.

Step 2: Corresponding to each sphere of influence you've identified, identify at least one action step you can take within that sphere to become more civically engaged. Record your action steps in the circles.

For example: If a sphere of influence you choose is your neighborhood, then an action step for civic engagement in that sphere might be to attend your next neighborhood association meeting.

Step 3: Share your Spheres of Influence and Action with a friend.

Dimensions of Civic Engagement - Knowledge Check


  • Did you have a difficult time identifying challenges? Why or why not?
  • Were there common themes among root causes? If so, what were they?
  • Did you have a hard time identifying action steps? Why or why not?
  • Were the solutions you generated feasible? Why or why not?
  • How did it feel to see yourself as part of the solution?
  • Whose responsibility do you think it is to address these challenges?

Applying Civic Skills

In this section, we explore ways to apply the civic skills and concepts discussed in this course. We begin by focusing on planning volunteer service projects as a way for volunteers to become more civically engaged. We then explore additional ideas for volunteers and national service participants to apply civic skills.

Last, but not least, we take some time to reflect on how you can best integrate the Service to Civics continuum into your national service program.


In this section on Applying Civic Skills, we will:

  • Review best practices for service project planning
  • Explore further activities for deepening civic engagement
  • Create a Service to Civics program plan

Let's begin with a look at the service project planning process...

Service Project Planning

Volunteers who are engaged more deeply in their community through planning volunteer service projects will be taking a powerful step along their path to greater civic involvement. When service projects are well-planned and engage volunteers in meaningful service experiences, they have the power to:

  • Serve as a catalyst for community change
  • Unite diverse groups of people to address public problems
  • Strengthen communities
  • Promote civic involvement
  • Teach community building skills

Let's look at some key components of a strong service project planning process.

Eight Components of Creating Strong Community Service Projects

  1. Research your project. Devote a substantial amount of time to researching the community issue you have chosen to tackle with the project. Try to uncover multiple community perspectives surrounding the problem. You can use interviews, surveys, community forums, newspapers, private organizations, government agencies, field experts and/or the internet to locate the information you need.
  2. Clearly define goals and objectives. Goals are what you hope to accomplish by the project. Objectives are the actual steps you will need to take to reach the project goals. Articulate the goals and objectives of the project to volunteers and project partners. People want to know why volunteering their time is important and how their efforts are going to make a difference in the community. Clearly defined goals and objectives are a road map to a successful service project.
  3. Create partnerships. Strong projects are supported and sustained through community partnerships. You may have already identified several partners for your project while doing your initial research. Make certain project partners represent the diversity of your community in age, culture, gender, education, and race.
  4. Carefully plan the project. Planning ahead for a service project is crucial to its success. When working with a team or committee, the group should plan project logistics, delegate duties, and agree on a timeline for completing assigned tasks. Although it is impossible to plan for everything, make an effort to be prepared for contingencies. Challenges that arise the day of the project will be more easily overcome if your team had the foresight to plan ahead for potential obstacles.
  5. Provide thorough volunteer orientation. In addition to letting volunteers know what to expect from a service project, orientation is the time to help volunteers make the connection between their service and the community issue. Take time to discuss the issue that is being addressed including a brief history of the issue, current statistics, current events related to the issue area, and other civic engagement opportunities linked to the issue (e.g., advocacy training, future service projects). These are all extremely helpful in educating and orienting volunteers to a service project.
  6. Build a reflection component into the project. Project participants need to have the opportunity to learn from the service they have provided. Organized reflection activities give participants time to generate the key concepts they learned as a result of participating in the project. Reflection activities should include time for participants to think about what they learned, how it impacted them, and what steps they can take in the future. Reflection also helps participants identify the value of participating in service activities
  7. Evaluate the project. Evaluation leads to continuous improvement. Evaluations can be conducted formally and informally. Make certain to evaluate both what worked well and what you would change for the next project. Include all stakeholders (volunteers, community members, agency representatives, etc.) in your evaluation strategy.
  8. Celebrate your success and share your story! Make sure to celebrate with your volunteers what you accomplished through the project. Also be sure to share your story formally through the media, and informally with people you know. Celebrate and let it be known that regular citizens can and do make a difference in their communities.

Service to Civics and Your National Service Program

So far we have created the foundation for understanding connections between civic involvement and volunteerism, and explored a variety of ways to increase your own civic engagement and that of your volunteers.

Challenge yourself to find new ways to deepen the connection between your volunteers’ service activities and greater civic involvement.

Five Ideas for Deepening Civic Involvement

1. Create a "Bill of Responsibilities"

Pass out copies of the Bill of Rights to your volunteers. Lead them in a discussion about the document by asking questions about its contents, promises, and significance. After you have discussed citizen rights, generate discussion about citizen responsibilities.
Ask volunteers to draft either an individual or group "Bill of Responsibilities" of their own. Debrief the activity by asking volunteers what they learned, what is significant about what they learned, and how they can apply what they have learned.

2. Highlight Citizen Problem Solving Activities

Have volunteers scour media sources for stories about creative ways citizens and communities are taking action to solve public problems. When your volunteers come together, ask them to share the stories they found.
Other sources members can use for this activity, in addition to local news outlets, are Do Something and YES Magazine. Both of these periodicals highlight organizations and individuals working to strengthen communities. Sharing these stories can give volunteers ideas, inspiration, and information about community resources.

3. Invite Guest Speakers

Expect your volunteers to be inspired by the good works of others. Try locating potential guest speakers through local service clubs, volunteer centers, and government offices.

4. Organize Study Circles

Compile a list of articles and books about civic involvement and facilitate a discussion group among your volunteers.

5. Tell Civic Stories

Provide volunteers with an opportunity to tell the story of their own civic involvement. This can be done through words, performance, and/or visual arts. Find creative ways to display and share the stories with an expanded audience. For example: create a video documentary, display their work in a local gallery, or compile a website or book.


Be sure to take a few minutes to complete the Service to Civics Program Plan from the Activities and Templates page of this section, in order to explore additional practical applications of the materials in this course.

Activities and Templates

Here are some training and implementation tools to help you identify ways to apply the concepts discussed in this course to your role in national service:

Project Information Report

A Project Information Report is a way to document your service project planning process. You can use this worksheet to capture:

  • the name of the project
  • a description of the project
  • project goals, and
  • contact information for project partners

The Project Information Report also includes standard project planning information such as necessary supplies, contingency plans or "rain dates," and volunteers designated to the project.

Click to view a sample Project Information Report you can duplicate for use with your program.

Project Planning Task List

A task list can help you keep track of everything that needs to be done to make your service activity successful. Consider prep work, tasks during the service itself, and all the follow-up actions as well. When completing the task list, be specific! Include:

  • the number of volunteers needed for each task,
  • the time required for each volunteer to complete the task, and
  • the priority order in which the tasks should be completed.

The Project Planning Task List is designed to help you track of all this information. Click to download a sample Project Planning Task List you can duplicate for use with your program.

Service to Civics Program Plan

Consider how you can incorporate civic involvement into each area of your program:

Context of Service

  • How are you currently engaging volunteers to serve in your national service program?
  • What are the primary community issues addressed through the work of your organization and its mission?

Training and Orientation

  • What type of orientation and training do you provide for your volunteers?
  • How do you incorporate information about the community issues into your volunteer training and orientation activities?
  • Identify two or three ways you could strengthen the community issues education in your volunteer orientation and training.

Program Design

  • Outside of formal training, in what other ways do you encourage volunteers in your program to become more civically engaged?
  • Thinking creatively about your volunteer program, what two or three additional ways could you inspire your volunteers to become more civically engaged through their work with your program?

The Service to Civics Program Plan can help you think of your national service program in terms of the civic engagement concepts discussed in this course. Click to download the Service to Civics Program Plan for use with your national service program.

Take It With You

This is your chance to take what you’ve learned from this course back with you to your everyday life. In order to explore the practical applications of the concepts discussed in this course, you can practice an activity you might replicate with your program volunteers and service members.

Choose ONE of the following activities to practice now:

Activity #1

Taking a moment to reflect on the concepts covered in this course, think about how you have:

Write yourself a letter outlining at least three ways you intend to apply the information from this course to your national service program. As a way to check your progress, you can give the letter to a colleague or supervisor for him or her to mail to you at a later date.

Activity #2

Take a few minutes to reflect on the concepts covered in this course using the following prompting questions:

Use this reflection time to journal about your learning experiences on the subject of civic involvement. Try to identify at least two tangible ways to apply what you've learned to your national service program.

Activity #3

Draw a cartoon about your experience taking this course. Try to illustrate:

Post your cartoon in your work space to remind you of what you've learned about civic involvement.

Click to download the Defining Civic Involvement Activity Sheet for use with your volunteers and national service members.


Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]As we continue to call people to meet the challenge of national and community service, let us persist in our quest to make their service meaningful — both to the communities we serve and to each and every participant.

This will be accomplished, in part, by providing volunteers with opportunities to reflect on the meaning of their service and how it relates to civic involvement.

Applying the Service to Civics Model

There are several ways you can continue to apply the Service to Civics model with your program volunteers and service members:

  • Take the opportunity to deepen the connections between the service your volunteers are providing and how their work is impacting the community.
  • Ask your volunteers questions and pique their curiosity about the issues that are facing the community.
  • Give them tools and ideas that will help them to build their toolbox of civic skills.
  • Lead them on the path of Service to Civics.

Course Summary

Upon completion of this course, you should be able to:

  • Better understand the definition of civic engagement
  • Create a framework for understanding civic involvment as it relates to volunteering
  • Investigate ways to apply civic skills and related concepts
  • Deepen the civic commitment of volunteers through reflection and other activities

Congratualtions for completing the Moving Volunteers from Service to Civic Engagement e-learning course! Before you move on, please take a few minutes to complete the online evaluation of this course. Your answers will help us evaluate the quality and effectiveness of our training and gain further information about your resource needs.

Click the link to access an online evaluation for this course: Give Us Your Feedback

Additional Resources

For more information on volunteerism and volunteer development, check out the following online resources: