Civic Engagement

How Are We Doing?

Civic engagement received a thumbs up because the percentage of eligible citizens in San Diego County who voted in the 2020 General Election was 74%, the highest voter turnout in the past 20 years. Additionally, the number of San Diego County households who volunteered and/or made a cash donation to a local charity remained stable in 2020. Voting, volunteering, and charitable giving are three fundamental ways that people in the United States participate in and contribute to their communities.

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High Voter Turnout in 2020 General Election


In the 2020 General Election, San Diego County had its highest voter turnout in the past 20 years, with 74% of eligible citizens voting. This represents a 20% increase in voter turnout since the 2016 election. Note, the denominator in 2004-2020 is based on the Citizen Voting Eligible population, which includes all possible eligible voters and excludes people who cannot vote for legal reasons.

Voter turnout in the 2020 General Election varied considerably by neighborhood, and tended to be higher in upper income neighborhoods than in lower income neighborhoods. Within the San Diego Promise Zone (SDPZ), an area spanning 6.4 square miles from Barrio Logan to Encanto, and designated as one of the City’s most underserved communities, voter turnout rates were 17 percentage points lower than in the County overall. Fifty-seven percent of eligible voters in the SDPZ voted compared to 74% across the County. The SDPZ is situated in the heart of San Diego where predominantly Black and Hispanic communities have lived for generations. Note, these results are preliminary as the data available has a margin of error.


San Diego volunteers provide critical unpaid labor leading tours in museums, tutoring children in schools, serving food to homeless families, and cleaning up beaches and parks.

The percent of San Diego residents who volunteer has remained stable for the past eight years. In 2020, 31% of San Diego residents reported volunteering for a local nonprofit, five percentage points lower than in 2019. This decrease in volunteering may be due to the COVID-19 pandemic where residents were encouraged to stay at home for much of the year.

Although the number of volunteers decreased slightly in 2020, the number of hours people spent volunteering increased. The average quarterly number of hours people volunteered increased slightly from 24 hours in 2019 to 26 hours in 2020.

Charitable Giving

In addition to volunteering, charitable giving is an important way for people to support the causes they care most about, and donations account for a substantial percentage of funding for local nonprofits in the region.

The percentage of households who donate in San Diego County has remained very steady for the past eight years. In 2020, 43% of households donated to a nonprofit compared to 45% in 2019.

Among residents who donate, the amount of money donated has increased considerably since 2015. The average quarterly dollars donated increased from $347 in 2019 to $463 in 2020.

Confidence in Local Institutions

Trust in San Diego’s institutions is essential to maintaining a high level of community engagement. Trust is the bedrock on which the nonprofit sector rests and the public’s confidence drives their engagement in the sector. Based on research on San Diego’s nonprofit sector, individuals who express confidence in nonprofits are two times more likely to donate and three times more likely to volunteer.

San Diegans continually express higher levels of confidence in local nonprofits than in local businesses or government. In 2020, 83% of a sample of San Diego residents reported confidence in nonprofits compared to 73% in businesses and 62% in local government. Though San Diegans rated nonprofits highest, both businesses and the government experienced a boost in confidence in 2020.

Why is Civic Engagement Important?

High quality of life means the region boasts a thriving economy, a healthy environment, and is an equitable place for all San Diegans to grow and prosper.

  • Environment: For decades, environmental justice efforts have prioritized community engagement at the local level and helped bring awareness to the environmental challenges communities face. The rapidly changing climate calls for heightened levels of engagement that catalyzes community voice and input as a critical strategy to address the environmental challenges we face today. San Diego County has seen increased participation in marches and political action around climate change and the number of climate-focused advocacy nonprofits has increased.
  • Economy: Civic participation in the form of attending meetings, volunteering, helping neighbors, registering to vote, volunteering, and voting, can strengthen economic resilience, and protect against unemployment.
  • Equity: One way to close the equity gap in San Diego is promoting civic participation. Through actions such as voting and volunteering, people develop knowledge and skills and broaden their social networks. Research suggests that communities with higher rates of civic participation have higher rates of social capital and lower rates of income inequality.

Regional Response


RISE San Diego and Leaders 2020 are programs encouraging civic engagement through developing young leaders. RISE San Diego develops urban leaders to become civically engaged in the neighborhoods in which they live and work. Leaders 2020 provides education, training, and networking opportunities to support young leaders in building a more environmentally and economically sustainable San Diego.


Engage San Diego is a collaborative network of social-justice-focused, nonprofit groups working to increase civic and voter engagement in historically and systemically excluded communities of San Diego County. Engage San Diego includes grassroots organizations with long standing relationships in the community such as the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, Alliance San Diego, Center on Policy Initiatives, the Environmental Health Coalition, and many others.

What Are We Measuring?

The Nonprofit Institute partners with Luth Research in the administration of a quarterly survey to gauge San Diegans’ perceptions of local nonprofits and to measure their giving and volunteering activities. The State of Nonprofits Quarterly Index is administered online to a panel of San Diego residents. The sample reflects the racial and ethnic distribution of the region. Overall voting data for San Diego County comes primarily from the California Office of the Secretary of State. Due to missing data for the 2000 General Election, 2000 voter turnout data was calculated using the San Diego County Registrar of Voters and U.S. Census data on the Citizen Voting Age Population (CVAP). For the census tract 2020 General Election voter turnout rates, datasets from the Statewide Database were used.