Government and Citizens

Civic Engagement

State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia

Civic Engagement

Civic engagement is the sense of connectedness that citizens feel with others, a willingness to serve their community and engage in community problem-solving. It can take many forms -- from making charitable contributions to volunteering; from voting to campaigning for candidates or issues to serving on local boards, committees, and councils. Civic participation, volunteerism, and service help create strong and vibrant communities.

Why is This Important?

Civic engagement promotes social trust and improves the quality of life in the Commonwealth. Robert Putnam argues in Bowling Alone that such "social capital" is necessary for good government and economic development. Civic engagement improves the lives of both participants and beneficiaries. Higher social capital levels have been linked with better health, lower crime, improved educational outcomes, and greater individual happiness. There are also economic benefits: One estimate places the economic value of the charitable or nonprofit sector at 7 percent of national income.

How is Virginia Doing?

Citizen Volunteer Rate, by State.  See text for explanation.Volunteerism

One measure of civic engagement is the percentage of residents who volunteer. In 2015, 30.6 percent of Virginia's adults worked unpaid volunteer hours, a half-point increase from the previous year. This was higher than the national rate of 24.9 percent and ranked the state 15th in the nation. Tennessee (24.1%), North Carolina (25.8%), and Maryland (27.9%) all had lower volunteer rates than Virginia. The leading state for volunteerism was again Utah at 43.2 percent.

Charitable Contributions

Charitable Contributions, by State. See text for explanation.Charitable contributions provide another measure of social involvement. Virginia households donated an average of $1,449 in 2013, which represented 2.1 percent of household gross adjusted income, a bit higher than the national average (2.0%). Although many states saw a slight decrease in their contribution rates, Virginia's percentage rose slightly from 2012 and ranked the Commonwealth 13th overall. However, Virginia lagged all three peer states: Tennessee (2.3%), North Carolina (2.4%), and Maryland (2.4%). Utah led the nation in this category, too, with 4.5 percent of income donated as charitable contributions.

Charitable Contributions, by Virginia Region.  See text for explanation.Among Virginia regions, in 2013 the Central region had the highest contribution as a percentage of income (2.37%), followed by the Hampton Roads (2.27%) and West Central (2.24%) regions. The Southwest region had the lowest contribution percentage at 1.42 percent, followed by the Northern region, with 1.89 percent.

Voter Turnout

Voter Participation by State. See text for explanation.Voter turnout gauges citizens’ level of political involvement, an important component of civic engagement -- and a prerequisite for maintaining public accountability. The number of voters as a percent of the estimated citizen voting age population (CVAP) provides one measure of voter participation.

In 2014, Virginia ranked 31st in the nation, with 36.6 percent of CVAP casting ballots. Maine had the highest turnout in 2014, with 59.2 percent of CVAP casting ballots. Virginia had a higher voting rate than peer states Tennessee (29.5%), but lower than North Carolina (40.9%) and Maryland (41.6%). Total voter turnout in the nation in 2014 was 36.4 percent.

Voter Participation by Virginia Region.  See text for explanation.Turnout rates in Virginia’s regions are available for the 2014 national elections using a voting age population (VAP) measure that includes all residents of voting age, rather than just citizens. The Eastern (38.5%) and Central (37.1%) regions had the highest VAP turnout rates, followed by the Northern region at 34.3 percent. The lowest turnout rate was in the Southwest region (29.1%). Total Virginia VAP turnout in 2014 was 33.9 percent, slightly higher than the national VAP rate of 33.0 percent. (See Voter Registration and Turnout for a full discussion).

What Influences Civic Engagement?

The pressures of time, money, and family commitments can negatively affect civic engagement. For instance, citizens who work full-time and experience long commutes have less time available for community service and civic activities. By contrast, part-time employees and citizens who live and work in small towns volunteer at greater rates. Senior citizens, who tend to be retired or part-time workers, contribute more average volunteer hours than other age groups.

Social stratification and community divisions along lines of income, race, ethnicity, and religion can make civic engagement more difficult. Educational levels and church attendance are strongly correlated with civic engagement and philanthropic giving.

Political engagement -- or lack thereof -- is a big factor in voter turnout. According to Thomas Patterson in The Vanishing Voter, since 1960 the type of citizen who votes less often has been gradually replacing the type who votes more often -- with the decline in participation concentrated among low-income Americans. Voter turnout is also affected, among other factors, by the office being voted on, convenience of registration, and voter educational level, age, and attitude.

What is the State's Role?

The State Board of Elections administers election laws and manages voter registration. The Virginia General Assembly is responsible for creating voter laws and dividing the state into representative legislative and Congressional voting districts; every 10 years (after every U.S. national population census), legislators must review and if necessary redraw these districts to reflect population changes.

The state can help promote civic engagement by ensuring fair voter and redistricting processes; by building partnerships among government agencies, non-profit organizations, and private citizens; and by maintaining networks of information about volunteer and charitable opportunities. It can also lead by example and provide easy access to information about government activities and decision-making, solicit and use public input, and encourage public employees to donate and serve. Citizens are much more likely to volunteer if they are asked.

Since education is also an important determinant of social capital, state support for public education, including civic education and service learning, is key to improving engagement.

What Can Citizens Do?

In a word: Participate! Citizens can become involved through activities as simple as voting, donating to a community-based organization, or attending a public meeting. Other possibilities involve a range of greater time commitments, such as volunteering with a neighborhood organization or church group, or joining a local volunteer fire department, or serving on a local government commission, committee, or task force. The Commonwealth of Virginia provides information on volunteer opportunities and volunteer training programs through several outlets, including Virginia Service.

Page last modified March 23, 2017
Volunteer Rate by State. Charitable Contributions by State. Charitable Contributions by Virginia Region.

State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.

Data Definitions and Sources

Percentage of Adult Population that Volunteers
Source: Corporation for National and Community Service, Volunteering in America.
A three-year moving average is used to improve the accuracy of the estimates. Volunteers are defined as individuals who performed unpaid volunteer activities at any point during the 12-month period beginning on September 1 of the previous year. The base data is obtained from the Current Population Survey Volunteer Supplement.

Charitable Giving by Households
Urban Institute, National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS),
Average adjusted gross income and charitable giving by state as reported on IRS tax return Form 1040, Schedule A, by households that itemize deductions, from IRS Tax Return Summary Files.

Voter Turnout
U.S. Election Assistance Commission - Election Day Survey.
Note: Alabama was dropped as leading state in 2014 because EAC ballot data does not correspond to that reported on the state's election site.

Dee, Thomas S. 2004. Are There Civic Returns to Education? Journal of Public Economics 88: 1697-1720.

Freeman, Richard B. 1997. Working for Nothing: The Supply of Volunteer Labor. Journal of Labor Economics. 15, 1: S140-S166.

Patterson, Thomas E. 2002. The Vanishing Voter: Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty (excerpted at History News Network,

Putnam, Robert. 2001.  Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Putnam, Robert. 2007. E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century: The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture. Scandinavian Political Studies 30, 2: 137-174.

Rupasingha, Anil, Stephan J. Goetz, and David Freshwater. 2006. The Production of Social Capital in US Counties. The Journal of Socio-Economics 35: 83-101.

See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.

At a Glance:
Civic Engagement in Virginia

Performance Trend: Trend is maintaining.
State Influence:  

National Ranking: Virginia recently ranked nationally as follows: 15th for Volunteerism (2015), 13th for Charitable Contributions (2013), 31st for Voter Participation (2014).

Virginia by Region:  The Central region leads the state in charitable contributions (2013), while the Eastern region leads in voter turnout (2014).

State Programs and Initiatives

The Secretary of the Commonwealth (SOC) handles ongoing appointments to the over 325 boards and commissions active in state government; nearly all positions are unpaid. Many Virginians possess specialized professional knowledge and experience that would be of great value to these boards. If you are interested in serving as a gubernatorial appointee, please contact the Governor's Office at 804-786-2211.

Additional Information

Several organizations in Virginia specifically promote civic engagement.  These include the following regionally based efforts:

Many other organizations -- far too numerous to list here -- promote engagement and activism at community, regional, national, and global levels. While some encourage community and civic involvement in general ways, many are centered around specific issues, interest areas, or political goals.