On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
How to assess a candidate's civic engagement. A framework for hiring managers.
Assessing candidates’ civic engagement: What to look for—and what to avoid

As a founder and Executive Director of New Politics, a nonprofit that recruits and supports servant leaders to run for office, I know the value of civic engagement. People who make civic engagement a priority generally share a strong connection to their community and an understanding of how systems work and can be improved. Those traits—community-mindedness, strategic thinking, and problem solving skills—are valuable assets for an employee to have, whether they’re working in the private, nonprofit, or government sectors. 

But what is “civic engagement”? 

I define civic engagement as being involved in your political community. That doesn't necessarily mean you’re running for office or getting involved in electoral politics. Rather, it’s that you’re engaging in the decision-making process around the policies, laws, and other key decisions that impact the systems in your neighborhood, city, or state. 

Civic engagement is distinct from volunteering. Volunteering involves providing a direct service to members of your community, but it doesn’t address deeper, systemic issues. Both are important, but they teach you different sets of skills. 

And for some, volunteering may lead to civic engagement. It did for me. 

My own experience serving with AmeriCorps, working with young people in schools and afterschool programs, is what initially sparked my passion for civic engagement. That experience made me aware that there are systems and decisions at play and showed me how working directly with young people wasn’t enough. I started attending town halls and engaging with local government, advocating for issues that affected my students, like removing lead paint from their schools and safeguarding vital after school programs from budget cuts. Not only did this experience ignite my interest in civic engagement, but it also started me on the path to founding New Politics.   

When a candidate I’m considering for hire has civic engagement experience, it is a plus. But like any experience listed on a resume, I need to know more in order to determine if and how that experience will benefit New Politics. Here is what I do and don’t focus on when assessing a candidate’s history of civic engagement: 

1. Paid vs. unpaid experience

It may be tempting to value unpaid civic engagement over paid experiences. It is tempting to think that taking on additional unpaid labor somehow makes a candidate’s engagement more genuine or pure. But in reality, having the time and resources to engage in unpaid work, including civic engagement work, is a privilege. Many people don’t have the financial resources, access to childcare, or flexible work schedule often required to take on an unpaid volunteer role. If we really value equity and representation in our hiring process and staff, we have to weigh paid and unpaid civic engagement equally.

2. Partisanship

New Politics is a nonpartisan political organization focused on electoral politics. We support servant leaders, regardless of party, and many local political races are nonpartisan. In general, it's important to have a conversation with any candidate about whether they’re aligned with the mission and values of your organization, but don’t write off a qualified candidate because of the political party they’ve worked for.   

3. Authenticity and narrative

There are many avenues to civic engagement and many crucial issues to focus on. I’ve found that the issue area a candidate is focused on is less important than how they arrived at that issue area. When I’m interviewing a candidate, I ask questions that focus on their journey to civic engagement: How did you get into this work? What sparked your passion for this particular issue? Why does this work matter to you?
Not only does this give me a clearer picture of who the candidate is and what motivates them, but it also helps weed out “title chasers”—people who are more interested in accumulating titles and clout than with actually strengthening their community. Asking a candidate to share the narrative of how they came to this work will help show you whether or not their engagement is authentic.    

4. Community mindedness 

To determine whether a candidate is community minded, I pay attention to the language that they use when talking about their past experiences in civic engagement. Specifically, I look for candidates who use “we” when describing their work and who focus on the collective impact of issues. To me, this indicates that a candidate is a leader, a team player, and someone who is thoughtful about their role in the community they operate in.

The takeaway

When I think of a leader, I think of someone who raised their hand when they didn’t have to. Civic engagement, like getting involved in policy and legislative discussions in your community, is one way of raising your hand. If you’re looking for employees who take initiative, think creatively, and are able to lead, hire people who prioritize civic engagement.