In recent years, membership in civic associations has declined. Despite this trend, some groups like the Sierra Club and the Rotary Club–which have clearly-defined, narrow focuses–not only persist, but thrive.

Previous research has focused on political and financial factors as variables predicting the effectiveness of civic associations. However, Kenneth T. Andrews and his co-authors (American Journal of Sociology, January 2010) argue that these variables’ effects are modest compared to the “human” factors of leader development and member engagement. This is due to civic associations’ unique need for many leaders at all levels of the organization and their dependence upon the voluntary efforts of their members.

After conducting telephone interviews with 368 Sierra Club Executive Committee chairs and administering 1,624 surveys to committee members, the authors found that the quantity of resources available to a civic association is useless unless it is recognized for its value and used appropriately by its leaders and members. An engaged membership is also more likely encourage strong programmatic activity and foster independent leadership.

These findings suggest that civic associations looking to boost the effectiveness of their programs should focus on developing and nurturing “activist” members, not just on fund-raising or maintaining government lobbyists.