The Gettysburg Project is a collaborative effort composed of leading practitioners and scholars in the fields of civic engagement, social movements, and social change. Our goal is to find ways to reengage Americans in the critical work of building an inclusive, responsive, and effective democracy.  We have created a learning community of organizational leaders and scholars to enhance the capacity of organizations to organize, mobilize, and empower Americans in civic action.

I.  The Challenge

Our democracy is broken.  Increasingly, citizens, practitioners, and policymakers alike are coming to see our democratic process fundamentally incapable of addressing 21st century challenges, from globalization, rising inequality, and social fragmentation, to climate change.

Nearly every step forward in the march of American democracy has been driven by the struggles of people to make their voices heard through civic associations, social movement organizations, and political parties.  These efforts accomplished remarkable advances—for the interests of racial minorities, working people, women, for public health and safety, environmental quality, sustainable economic growth and for the common good more broadly—and formed our most effective mechanisms for democratic expression and accountability.  

Yet the organizations and strategies that accomplished so much in the 20th century seem unable to meet today’s challenges.  Although valiant and creative efforts are being made in a wide variety of areas including online and offline, locally and nationally, we believe that our democracy today requires a much broader and deeper form of civic engagement to succeed and thrive.  In the future, as in the past, we believe that progress in the long-held goals of creating equal opportunity for all, shared prosperity, and real democracy will depend on mobilizing millions of Americans, from all walks of life, to participate in shaping our collective future.

II.  Our Distinctive Approach

1.  A Focus on Organizations:

Many current efforts to improve American democracy focus on fixing its broken institutions. Such efforts include campaign finance reform, redistricting, protection of voting rights, and the National Popular Vote. Other democracy efforts aim to mobilize or educate individual citizens: voter registration, Get-Out-The-Vote, and civic education fit this category.  The Gettysburg Project focuses instead on intermediary organizations that seek to engage individuals collectively over the long-term. Through this focus on organizations, we can in turn drive reforms to institutions while also expanding the knowledge and capacities of individual citizens. 

We propose to improve civic engagement by addressing the role of organizations at three levels:

  • Improving how organizations reach inward to mobilize civic engagement. How should recruitment, leadership development, and other core strategies respond to major demographic, technological, and other tectonic shifts in American society? How can movement-building organizations achieve both scale and sustainability?
  • Improving how organizations reach outward to collaborate with one another. Where can the field of organizations that mobilize Americans benefit most from a shared infrastructure? How can those organizations coordinate agenda-setting and action-planning? What types of alliances are most crucial?
  • Improving how organizations reach upward to achieve the structural changes needed to strengthen democratic practice. How can we most productively address the problems of unequal representation, money in politics, electoral administration, labor law reform, among others? What kinds of reforms can create both better policies, and more balanced political power going forward?

2. Building A Community of Practice for Learning, Innovation, and Experimentation:

The Gettysburg Project focuses on creating a member-based and member-driven learning and innovation community of approximately 40 experienced, creative, and collaborative leaders committed to analyze, experiment, and learn together.  Rather than a revolving door of conference participants, we are building a community where each member has committed to personally engage in the full series of in-depth, face-to-face meetings. In the interval between these meetings, when participants are back in their organizations, they will continue to engage in the Gettysburg community through on-line forums; share in the development, testing, and evaluation of innovative practices; and collaborate in field-wide initiatives. 

This approach builds on the model of “executive sessions” developed at the Harvard Kennedy School. Executive sessions bring together leaders in a field of public problem solving over several years in order to develop a community of practice that fundamentally transforms and advances that field.[1] Past executive sessions have brought together crisis managers, leaders of state courts, police chiefs, and many others.

The participants of the Gettysburg Project are leaders who:

  • Are drawn from a diverse array of mobilization approaches or are scholars and strategists of civic engagement;
  •  Have a track record of accomplishment in mobilizing or understanding mobilization;
  • Have authority and stature in their fields and organizations to translate the insight and knowledge that they gain from Gettysburg into real changes in their organizations and in the world;
  • Have demonstrated openness to new ideas, approaches, and partners;
  • Are at a stage of career in which they will continue to contribute to the quality of civic engagement and mobilization for years to come.

III.  Our Agenda

As a community of practice that brings academics and practitioners together, Gettysburg offers a unique forum and set of capacities to cultivate a collective learning community where movement leaders can engage in honest, safe self-reflection, new learning, and strategic thinking that goes beyond their own organizations.  By leveraging the engagement of academics, Gettysburg can structure a learning forum and process, while developing materials to generate insights and outputs that may be useful to the civic engagement field as a whole.  Second, Gettysburg’s community is well situated to build on this learning process to generate experimentation and innovation in approaches to building organizational capacity, and building civic power among constituencies.

In future months, Gettysburg will structure its efforts around three interrelated approaches to collective learning and experimentation:

(A) deep collective learning, such as by engaging with theoretical concepts or case studies; linked to

(B)  an exploration of long-term megatrends and their implications for our vision for the future; both of which will shape

(C)  the generation of action-oriented experiments and innovations to be tested and evaluated in real-time. 

These efforts will help generate new thinking not only for the participants in Gettysburg, but for the field of civic engagement and organizing as a whole.


[1] For a discussion of the Harvard Kennedy School model of executive sessions, see: