Civic Responsibility

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Comprised of actions and attitudes associated with democratic governance and social participation, civic responsibility can include participation in government, church, volunteers and memberships of voluntary associations. The importance of civic responsibility is paramount to the success of democracy and philanthropy. By engaging in civic responsibility, citizens ensure and uphold certain democratic values written in the founding documents.



Civic Responsibility is defined as the "responsibility of a citizen" ( It is comprised of actions and attitudes associated with democratic governance and social participation. Civic responsibility can include participation in government, church, volunteers and memberships of voluntary associations. Actions of civic responsibility can be displayed in advocacy for various causes, such as political, economic, civil, environmental or quality of life issues.

Civic means, "of, relating to, or belonging to a city, a citizen, or citizenship, municipal or civil society" (ibid.).

Responsibility refers to "the state or quality of being responsible or something for which one is responsible such as a duty, obligation or burden" (ibid.).

A citizen is "a person owing loyalty to and entitled by birth or naturalization to the protection of a state or union" (ibid.).

Citizenship means "a productive, responsible, caring and contributing member of society." (ibid.).

Historic Roots

Civic Responsibility dates to ancient Rome whose citizens wanted to contribute to Roman society. Civic responsibility may have started with Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus in 519 BC.

Although Civic Responsibility has existed for centuries in society, it was officially sanctioned as a blueprint for democracy in 1787 by the ratification of the United States Constitution. The Constitution declared, "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States."

In the 18 th and 19th centuries and through the 1930s, civic responsibility in America was tied to a commonwealth perspective. From voluntary fire departments to the public arts to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the 1930s and 1940s, citizens participated in projects that shaped communities and ultimately the nation. Due to civic responsibility, citizenship was understood in terms of the labors of ordinary people who created goods and undertook projects to benefit the public, as opposed to the high-minded, virtuous and leisure activities of gentlemen. This kind of civic identify helped create an important balance between pursuit of individual wealth and the creation of public things (Boyte and Kari 1999)

In the 1960s, community responsibility and civic responsibility became more popular. The Cold War and nuclear threats were common fears that coalesced citizens of the United States (Swanson, 1999). Combined with opposition to the war in Vietnam, grassroots organizations to fight environmental pollution and college campus protest demonstrations, citizens learned the value of expressing civic responsibility through civil disobedience. People relied on each other in order to correct injustice and achieve greatness in the nation.

During the 1960s, 62.8 percent of Americans voted in presidential elections. People were involved in political organizations and community action groups because modern technology allowed more free time to society (Putman 2000). Participation proved successful in the Civil Rights Movement lead by Martin Luther King and later failed in the 1980s with the Equal Rights Amendment initiative.

In the 1980s and 1990s, many organizations lost membership. For example, new memberships for the organization of Business and Professional Women declined 89 percent by the end of 1997. Memberships for the Parent Teachers' Association (PTA) declined 60 percent, memberships for the League of Women Voters declined 61 percent and memberships for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) saw a 46 percent decrease in membership (Swanson 1999).

In 2001, 44 percent of American adults volunteered in organizations compared to 55 percent in 1999. Financial donations declined in 2001 with 89 percent of American households giving an average of $1,620 compared to 70 percent with an average of $1,075 in 1999 (Independent Sector 1999, Independent Sector 2001).


The importance of civic responsibility is paramount to the success of democracy and philanthropy. By engaging in civic responsibility, citizens ensure and uphold certain democratic values written in the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Those values or duties include justice, freedom, equality, diversity, authority, privacy, due process, property, participation, truth, patriotism, human rights, rule of law, tolerance, mutual assistance, self restraint and self respect. Schools teach civic responsibility to students with the goal to produce responsible citizens and active participants in community and government.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Civic responsibility is tied to the philanthropic sector in many ways. By citizen and corporate participation, nonprofit organizations prosper from their giving of time and money.

Service learning directly relates to civic responsibility and ties to the philanthropic sector by students learning through the completion of projects within communities. Examples of organizations supporting service learning include Youth Service America, the Points of Light Foundation and the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.

Key Related Ideas

Service-learning is a process of learning civic responsibility that involves problem-solving and learning about issues and interacting with community. Through service learning, citizens participate in projects to help or serve the identified needs of the community. By learning about community assets and needs and actually doing work, citizens experience the value and impact of giving to people and learn to be productive members of society.

Volunteering is a form of civic responsibility, which involves the giving of time or labor without the expectation of monetary compensation. Many people volunteer through local churches, animal shelters or food banks. Volunteering allows citizens the opportunity to share their skills and talents as well as the to learn new skills while helping those in need of assistance.

Civic Education is a method in which to teach civic responsibility. According to the Center of Civic Education, it is a way to promote and enlighten responsible citizenry committed to democratic principles. Civic education is a means to actively engage people in the practice of democracy in the United States and other countries (Center for Civic Education).

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus: A Roman statesman, Cincinnatus gained fame for his selfless devotion to the republic. During a national crisis, he took control of Rome and swiftly vanquished the threat to the country. After his victory and the security of the country restored, he relinquished his power. In 458 BC, Cincinnatus was appointed dictator to rescue a consular army surrounded by enemy forces. Cincinnatus defeated the enemy in a single day and maintained his authority for only 15 days, long enough to bring Rome through the emergency (Leadership Now 2001).
  • President Thomas Jefferson: Jefferson served as the third president of the United States and authored the Declaration of Independence, which guaranteed citizens the "unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Through civic responsibility, citizens are free to pursue these rights and to respect the same pursuits by other individuals.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr . : King was a Baptist minister, civil rights activist and recognized for his example of civic responsibility in the United States. His fight for equality continues today. "His lectures and dialogue stirred the concern and sparked the conscious of a generation. The movements and marches he led brought significant changes in the fabric of American life through his courage and selfless devotion. This devotion gave direction to thirteen years of civil rights activities" (The King Center).

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • AmeriCorps is a network of national service programs enabling more than 50,000 Americans to meet critical needs in education, public safety, health and the environment. The members serve more than 2,100 non-profits, public agencies and faith-based organizations. AmeriCorps was created in 1993 and is part of the Corporation for National and Community Service
  • The Center for Civic Education was founded in 1964 and is based in Los Angeles, California. The origin of the Center can be traced to the interdisciplinary Committee on Civic Education formed at the University of California. The Center strives to produce educational material with a focus on Civic Responsibility. The organization has two main offices located in Los Angeles, California and Washington, D.C. The Center is the creator of "We the People," an instructional program on the history and principles of American constitutional democracy for elementary, middle and high school students. The program is a required part of the curriculum in many schools ).
  • The Corporation for National and Community Service was founded in 1993 and oversees AmeriCorps, Learn and Serve and Senior Corps. It provides Americans of all ages and backgrounds the opportunity to serve their communities and country
  • Peace Corps was founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy with the purpose to promote world peace and friendship. Three simple and challenging goals comprise the Peace Corps mission: helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of peoples served and helping to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans ( ).
  • The United Way is the nation's leading agency that "invests in and activates the resources to make the greatest possible impact in communities across America" (United Way, 2003). The United Way brings communities together to raise money, provide volunteers and gain support for non-profit agencies


Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • Boye, Harry and Nancy N. Kari. "Renewing the Democratic Spirit in American Colleges and Universities: Higher Education as Public Work . " (1999). In Higher Education and Civic Responsibility. 
  • Center for Civic Education. "About the Center."
  • The Independent Sector. "Giving and Volunteering in the United States
  • U.S. National Archives and Records Administrations. "Declaration of Independence." The National Archives Experience
  • The King Center. "Biographical Outline of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." The King Center.
  • Leadership Now. "Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus." (2001). Leadership Now.
  • Putnam, R.D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Renewal of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. ISBN: 0743203046.
  • Swanson, Stephanie S. "Social Capital and Civic Responsibility; How to teachers can promote volunteerism and civic responsibility." (1999). Pacific Lutheran University.


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University.