Help Rethink the Highest Role for Our Sector on Voting and a Healthy Democracy

Earlier this month, Independent Sector hosted one of our Upswell “Pop-Ups.” This one focused on the role nonprofits play in advancing systems change through smart issue advocacy. It included a lively discussion with two leaders from our sector who are, today, using their advocacy muscle to stop efforts to “roll back” the progress we saw in voter participation in 2020.

November 2020 may seem a lifetime away, so it is useful to remind ourselves of headlines that came out of last year’s elections – headlines that were of note for nonprofit organizations of all types:

  • The data clearly show that, when voters were offered expanded options for turning in their ballots, they turned out in numbers we have not seen in over a century.
  • Many nonprofits played a far more visible role – through nonpartisan voter education campaigns – in making the case for more accessible voting procedures nationwide.
  • The success of those nonpartisan voter education campaigns by nonprofits in 2020 helped to demonstrate the power nonprofits of all kinds have in expanding fair and equal access to the ballot in the communities they serve. That builds a healthy democracy.

Fast forward a few months, and we are in yet another challenging landscape. States across the nation are debating whether to keep the proactive policies that helped make the voter turnout gains of last fall possible. Many states are passing new restrictions that will roll back those policies and, many believe, that progress. All of this is occurring against what remains a persistent backdrop of declining trust in the integrity of elections and the shadow of an assault on the Capitol at the very moment the Congress was taking its constitutionally mandated steps in the broader election process.

For sure, the developments since November 2020 have been ringing alarm bells for nonprofits of all types across the sector – whether or not their core mission is voting. Many are asking whether the path they have been on, and that path that seemed to bring so much success just a few months ago, is still the right path.

So, what’s a nonprofit to do? And what is the right role, right now, for the larger nonprofit sector?  Where to go for answers?

We are banking on the fact that you – whether a practitioner or an academic – hold PART of that answer. And, so, we NEED you (please read on).

This year, Independent Sector and the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) are using our annual Policy Symposium to bring together researchers and practitioners alike to help us think about (and challenge our current thinking about) the best practices, capacity requirements, legal restrictions, and other variables that shape the ability of our sector to impact the health of our democracy, and the direction of one its core underpinnings – fair, accessible, and trusted elections. What can we learn from the best research and from lived (and very recently lived) experience?

We invite you, or a member of your network, to consider sharing your expertise and your experience by submitting a short, 600-word proposal for how our sector, in light of all that has happened these past months, should be thinking about the critical and evolving intersection of nonprofits, voting, and elections.

Authors of successful proposals will be asked to write 2,000- to 4,000-word commentaries to be presented at the virtual 2021 Policy Symposium on September 17, 2021. Commentary papers presented at the Symposium may be published following the event.

Proposals are due June 14, 2021. You can submit your proposal by way of this link:

All of us at Independent Sector are keenly aware that we tend to ask much of you. We ask for your voice and advocacy. We ask for your ideas. We ask for your participation in learning and community-building events. And we ask for your commitment to being a part of this vital meeting ground. I am going to be honest – I don’t see “the asks” letting up. While we will absolutely do all we can to NOT burn you out, we are also going to keep exploring new and valuable ways to engage you.

We hope, and we trust, that the 2021 Independent Sector/ARNOVA Policy Symposium is one of those ways. Please consider submitting a proposal by June 14. You could just be holding the key.

Thanks for all you do.


Types: All
Global Topics: Civil Society, Election, Equity, Infrastructure, Public Policy, Purpose, Trust, Voice, Voices for Good
Policy Issues: Civil Society Infrastructure