Nonprofits, as well as businesses, universities, and governmental entities, are deeply intertwined with the communities we serve. No action we take is in isolation. Even seemingly “neutral” actions can perpetuate the status quo of racial inequity. It is this understanding that prompted Nonprofit VOTE to join with Independent Sector’s recent Racial Equity in Policy Week of Action. Without a conscious effort to keep a racial equity lens front and center, nonprofits can inadvertently find themselves on the wrong end of a policy. It’s important for us, as nonprofit leaders, to continuously ask the question, “What impact will this policy have on racial equity?”
Even good policies, poorly designed and implemented, can exacerbate inequity. Early voting is a good example of this. As a study by Gronle, Galanes-Rosebaum, and Miller reports, “Early voting reforms, far from equalizing past inequities, instead show some signs of reinforcing them, encouraging turnout among habitual voters but failing to draw new voters into the system.” Despite the intent of the policy, the report showed wealthier, older people, who were already more likely to vote, that took advantage as opposed to communities of color. That’s why it’s critical to continuously ask the question, “What impact will this have on racial equity?”
Even actions or policies that on the surface seem “race neutral” can just perpetuate inequity. We can see that in voting and democracy. For a number of reasons, communities of color have historically voted at lower rates. As a nation, we depend largely on political parties and candidates to contact voters and get them to the polls. However, the goal of political campaigns is not to foster racial equity. Their goal is to win an election with limited time and money. To do that, they make strategic choices in how they allocate resources and focus their communications and outreach on people and communities with a history of voting. As a result, communities of color and low-income people without a strong history of voting get only a fraction of the election communications and encouragement to vote. Without that contact and encouragement, many do not vote. And by not voting, they are once again labeled as unlikely voters, and the cycle repeats itself.
It is through direct action, not simply goodwill, that we can ensure that these existing inequities do not perpetuate themselves. To change those inequities on voting, we look to America’s nonprofits, because they are governed by a different ethic than political campaigns, one that seeks to lift up the collective voices of communities they serve versus winning an election. It is that difference that makes a difference. Our own research definitively shows that voters engaged by nonprofits (disproportionately communities of color) vote at significantly higher rates following the nonprofit contact. Best of all, gaps in turnout between voters of color and white voters is narrowed in the process.
Knowing the positive impact of nonprofits doing voter engagement work has on racial equity and fostering a more inclusive democracy, we at Nonprofit VOTE provide an array of resources, toolkits, and webinars to help nonprofits across the nation act as true civic partners in helping the communities they serve vote. That’s what gets us up in the morning.
As part of Racial Equity in Policy Week of Action, we join Independent Sector in calling on all nonprofits to hold the racial equity lens front-and-center when thinking about the implications of their policy work and programs. Regardless of whether your nonprofit is focused on education, health, housing, or the arts, your actions can either perpetuate inequities or create positive change. But you won’t know unless you ask the question, “What impact will this policy or program have on racial equity?”
Brian Miller is executive director of Nonprofit VOTE, which partners with America’s nonprofits to help the people they serve participate and vote. It is the largest source of nonpartisan resources to help nonprofits integrate voter engagement into their ongoing activities and services.