What can the biggest winner of the 2016 election teach nonprofits about how to do our work? No, it’s not that we all need to ramp up our use of Twitter. It’s that one small act ensures our issues are heard by philanthropy, nonprofits, and elected officials: Voting!
In the past few election cycles, we’ve seen candidates and media flock to learn more about rural workers, suburban soccer moms, and voters in important primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. These voters wielded significant political and philanthropic power, just by casting a ballot in a national election. How great would it be if people experiencing homelessness or living with disabilities received the same level of attention?
Here’s the exciting news: Nonprofits are poised to capitalize on our power to capture public and elected officials’ attention. Through voting, nonprofits can empower the people we serve and ensure that when we talk, elected officials listen. Best of all, this high-impact work is easy to do.
Empower People We Serve
Nonprofits often serve some of the most marginalized, disempowered members of our communities. These same citizens should expect their elected officials to understand their needs and develop public policies to help them. The best way to establish this relationship between politicians and marginalized citizens is through voting. Elected officials that know they will be held accountable by vulnerable populations are far more likely to cater to their needs while in office.
Unfortunately, many Americans are choosing not to vote, citing a corrupt system as a reason. However, if they’re not voting, candidates and elected officials aren’t paying attention to their needs, creating a vicious cycle.
At the recent Equity Summit hosted by PolicyLink, Jose Antonio Vargas, founder and CEO of Define American, said, “We can’t expect people to fight for us if we’re not fighting for them.”
Nonprofit VOTE asserts that nonprofits can help people break this cycle of disempowerment. As the most trusted institutions in our communities, nonprofits are uniquely effective to drive voter registration and turnout. According to Nonprofit VOTE’s Engaging New Voters report, voter turnout among groups who were engaged by nonprofits is higher. The report also shows the nonprofits are more likely to engage voters of color, immigrants, and young people.
A study by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement explains how voting, nonprofits, and advocacy all fit together. Their research found that voters are more likely to volunteer, contact their elected officials, and stay informed about local affairs. Not only are these citizens more engaged with nonprofit organizations, they exercise greater control over policies and the environment that shape their communities. When more marginalized constituents vote, the government works for and alongside them, rather than dictating to them.
Ensure Elected Officials Listen
In a January convening about lessons the nonprofit sector could learn from the 2017 tax reform debate, several advocates expressed concern about nonprofits’ ability to influence elected officials. One participant observed that the sector did not communicate how Members of Congress would “feel the pain” if they ignored issues critically important to our organizations and our communities. Another participant said, “Elected officials really only care about two things; employment and voters.”
Both advocates highlighted the importance of tying nonprofit policy asks to a consequence. Gaining or losing votes is one possible consequence. If nonprofits were able to encourage their own staff, volunteers, and donors to vote on a regular basis, philanthropy and elected officials may begin clamoring for their organizations’ priorities.
Deliver High Impact with Minimal Effort
A natural reaction at this point might be, “Great, just another task to pile onto my never-ending to-do list.” But the best news is that our organizations are already primed to successfully flex voter engagement muscle in service of our mission.
Nonprofit VOTE’s research demonstrated that nonprofits already have the community relationships, systems, and trust necessary to easily incorporate nonpartisan voter engagement into our current work. Organizations provide resource libraries, detailed guides, and even free toolkits that can be shipped to your door, complete with posters and stickers.
For example, nonprofits can add voter registration into their organizations’ intake procedures for new clients or as a part of HR paperwork for new staff. As a result, people knowledgeable about your mission are ready to make their voices heard at the ballot box.
With 1.6 million nonprofit organization in this country, imagine the positive impact we could have on our missions, our communities, and our democracy if nonpartisan voter engagement and advocacy was a core service that we provide to our stakeholders.
For this reason, María Teresa Kumar, president & CEO of Voto Latino, ended her remarks at the PolicyLink Equity Summit with a plea to the thousands of people in the room: “I need you, as Americans, to literally register your hearts out. Be present.”
Resources and Organizations:
• Foundation Tools for Nonpartisan Voter Engagement, Independent Sector
• Voices for Good podcast
• Nonprofit VOTE
• Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE)*
• League of Women Voters*
• Voto Latino
• Rock the Vote
• Project Vote
• Coalition on Black Civic Participation
• Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) Vote