Commentary

Hamilton Civic League off to a Good Start

Their leadership acumen suggests that achievement of the group's public goals is possible and makes it a valuable addition to the local civic landscape.

By David Van Beveren
Published October 08, 2009

The Hamilton Civic League launched last week to mild fanfare from those who appreciate the importance of participatory democracy in local affairs, but was received with some skepticism by others who have seen previous citizens groups come and go and questioned the staying power of this particular effort.

A forthcoming study [Word document] in the American Journal of Sociology suggests that the league's leadership may be on the right track with its vision and early planning.

Co-authored by researchers from four US universities, the study asks why some civic organizations are more effective than others and seeks to identify factors that account for their successful performance.

The authors find that variations in effectiveness are explained largely by organizational and leadership practices and are less influenced by external factors, such as political contexts or economic resources.

A review of the preliminary plans and operating structure of the Hamilton Civic League shows that the group's leadership is performing well in many of the areas identified in the study.

Three Dimensions of Organizational Effectiveness

Drawing on data collected from 343 local and 62 state and regional chapters of the Sierra Club, the American environmental group, the researchers established measures for three dimensions of organizational effectiveness - public recognition, member engagement, and leader development - and identified common qualities shared by chapters that performed well in each of these categories.

Among the qualities identified:

  1. The scope and range of community programming and events has a significant impact on a group's ability to mobilize support and engage members. Chapters that organize face-to-face activities create more organizational capacity in the form of expanded networks, greater human capital, and other types of resources, than chapters with less active membership programs.

  2. Groups whose executive committee organizes tasks interdependently, rather than as individuals working towards distinct agendas, utilize individual and group resources to a far greater extent than those who operate in a different manner. Interdependence of the leadership team is a key factor explaining effective organizational practices.

  3. Leadership teams that establish shared goals with their members and plan and execute their work collectively enhance the development of individual members and, by extension, the capacity of the group. Experiences within the group generate skills among members, increase commitment, and improve overall effectiveness.

Interestingly enough, the amount of revenue collected by the chapters was not shown to correlate independently with organizational effectiveness.

HCL Doing Many Things Right

If the results of the study are to be believed, the Hamilton Civic League has begun its work doing many things right.

Its board of directors has proposed a diverse program to engage with community partners and new members through activities and public meetings.

They have devised a clear agenda of tasks and goals that will require the active participation of the membership and prompt the emergence of new leaders as the organization grows and matures.

The board has also embraced an open structure that encourages collaboration, collective ownership, and interdependency. The potential for harmful siloing or exclusion seems minimal.

Leadership Acumen

At the launch on September 30, board members took pains to emphasize their relative inexperience with political organizing and municipal affairs, but you wouldn't know it by the work they've done.

Knowingly or unknowingly, they've identified characteristics of organizational effectiveness and built them into the structure of their young project.

Their leadership acumen suggests that achievement of the group's public goals is possible and makes it a valuable addition to the local civic landscape.

As the authors of the AJS study note, civic organizations act as important incubators for social movements and change. Of 46 voluntary associations that encompassed one percent or more of the US population between 1776 and 1955, seventeen led or helped institutionalize sweeping social changes.

Hamilton is fortunate that a few of its citizens have endeavoured to create such an organization here.

David Van Beveren is a Hamilton native. He grew up in Ancaster and now lives in Ward 1.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted October 08, 2009 at 13:09:56

Thanks for posting a link to that AJS article, David. I'm eager to read it through--my aborted attempt at a PhD focused on the efficacy of social movement organizations (specifically, PIRGs), so this is right up my alley!

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By dlynes (registered) - website | Posted December 16, 2009 at 01:09:48

It would be nice to find more groups like this, that have some clout with the city. I would very much like to see the city come back to its former glory days.

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