Nonprofit Voice 2020

Elections provide nonprofits a unique window when elected officials and candidates are listening to the needs of voters and their communities.  Nonpartisan advocacy and engagement this year is a valuable way to ensure elected officials prioritize issues impacting nonprofit missions and stakeholders once in office.  Specifically, it is an opportunity to spotlight voices often overlooked or left out of policy conversations.

Plus, policymakers need our expertise.  The nonprofit sector is an economic powerhouse, a trusted source of information, and an essential partner for any policymaker with big goals. But these essential messages will only be heard if we use our voice, particularly during election season.

Included on this page are links to comprehensive resources on how to leverage participatory democracy to advance nonprofit missions and meet the needs of the communities we serve.

Please visit the buttons below to dive into specific resources on three main strategies:

A Healthy Democracy Requires Equal Access and Participation

Ensuring your donors, volunteers, and people you serve can educate candidates and policymakers about their needs and desires is a fundamental component of fairness and equity. Ultimately, when candidates know nonprofit staff, volunteers, donors, and the communities we serve vote, they know that they will be held accountable by these citizens in the next election.

Often citizens require help to ensure their voices are heard by candidates.  They need information on voter registration, polling places, and how issues discussed in elections may impact their daily lives.  Nonprofits are perfectly positioned to help meet these needs.  Even when people want to vote, they may need help when it comes to the logistics of casting their ballot.  A historic 168 million people voted in 2020, all of whom have different needs in terms of when, where, and how they can vote.

As nonprofits work to help citizens figure out how to vote, they also serve as important nonpartisan experts with valuable information for policymakers and election officials on ways to improve voting procedures to meet the needs of all local citizens.  When our trusted organizations use our voice to inform fair, accessible voting policy on behalf of the people we serve, we shift the conversation from a partisan debate to identifying solutions that work for everyone.

Know the Rules

 Find Your Partners

How to Engage Voters

Citizens who vote are not only more engaged with nonprofit organizations, they are more likely to volunteer, contact their elected officials, and stay informed about local affairs. When more marginalized constituents vote, the government works for and alongside them, rather than dictating to them.

If you want elected officials to take your mission and the people you serve seriously, you need to make sure your stakeholders get out and vote!  Your staff, volunteers, donors, and constituents are experts on why your issues are important to your community.  By voting, they hold elected officials accountable and ensure their voices will be heard in the policy process.

Last year saw record-breaking voter engagement and turnout, despite a pandemic.  In fact, people voted at rates not seen in over 100 years, thanks in part to nonprofits. Research suggests that voters engaged by nonprofits showed a measurable turnout boost of 3 percentage points over comparable voters, making nonprofits uniquely effective in driving voter registration and turnout. Now is the time for nonprofits to build on this momentum in order to encourage even more citizens to vote.

Voter Registration

National Voter Registration Day is a nonpartisan civic holiday that is recognized on the fourth Tuesday of September to celebrate our democracy and our collective efforts to address the barriers that prevent eligible voters from having their voices heard. Nearly 4.5 million voters across all 50 states have registered to vote on National Voter Registration Day, including 1.3 million in 2018-2019 alone. By leveraging technology and the reach of our partners, nonprofits have the ability to educate Americans about how to register, sign up for election reminders, request mail-in ballots, learn about early voting options, and more.. There’s no better time than the present to integrate voter engagement into your current activities and services. Become a National Voter Registration Day Partner today and use this collection of resources to help organize events and activities leading up to National Voter Registration Day.

One of the easiest and most effective activities a nonprofit can engage in is encouraging its staff, board members, volunteers, supporters, and service recipients to register to vote. Bear the following guidelines in mind when preparing voter registration activities:

  • Nonprofit organizations are free to conduct voter registration drives and other voter education efforts to ensure more citizens can vote. The only restriction on such activities is that they must be nonpartisan – intended to promote the voting process rather than to influence the election or defeat of a specific candidate. That means that the drive must give registration assistance without inquiring how the recipient plans to vote. You may not suggest what party or candidate to support.
  • During the voter registration, nonprofit staff and volunteers must be reminded to avoid saying or writing anything that would indicate any partisan purpose, motive, or hoped-for result.
  • It also means that the places in which the drive will operate cannot be chosen for reasons that relate to the outcome of the election. Nonprofit organizations can target specific communities of people, so long as those communities were not chosen based on political or ideological criteria.
  • An FEC regulation requires posting a sign or giving written notice to people you are registering or helping to vote, saying “These voter registration services are available without regard to the voter’s political preference. Information and other assistance regarding registering or voting, including transportation and other services offered, shall not be withheld or refused based on the support for or opposition to particular candidates or a particular party.”

Voter registration activities that may be carried out by 501(c)(3) nonprofits include:

  • Registering board, staff, and volunteers to vote;
  • Registering clients and constituents; and
  • Providing registration materials at events and posting a registration link on the organization’s website.

Nonprofit Staff Vote

In 2020, Independent Sector signed on as a flagship partner for the Nonprofit Staff Vote campaign, a joint initiative that aims to encourage nonprofit employers to offer employees paid time off to vote on or before Election Day. Join our efforts to ensure nonprofit leaders set an example for all industries.

Resources for Nonprofits

  • Independent Sector partnered with Nonprofit VOTE and the Council on Foundations to publish toolkits designed to help both community foundations and private foundations engage grantees, donors, and communities in new ways to help elevate our democracy and the voices of the people they serve.
  • At this time, Nonprofit Vote is offering virtual trainings and can accommodate any nonprofit of any size.
  • Need help developing your voter engagement strategy? Use this resource as a starting point to ensure your constituents are vote-ready on election day. 
  • The IRS affirmatively states that 501(c)(3) organizations may conduct voter engagement or connect with candidates on a nonpartisan basis. Learn more about permissible activities here.
  • The League of Women Voters website provides tips for successful voter registration drives. 
  • Find your state’s voter registration deadline here.

“Ensuring that the voices of communities impacted by hunger, poverty, and other adverse conditions are heard is essential to mitigating the impact of past (e.g., Jim Crow laws) and recent (e.g., restrictive voting laws) efforts to harm the most vulnerable. A cornerstone of engagement in — and integration into — a democracy is exercising the power of voting.”

–  Food Research and Action Center

 Voter Education

Many nonprofits seek to shape the public policies that impact their operations, their missions, and the communities they serve through public education and advocacy. The organization is not required to abandon that mission or withhold its expertise during an election year. A nonprofit properly may make the most of this heightened level of voter awareness by injecting such topics into the campaign debate, with the aim of increasing public support for its policy stances. The focus of the 501(c)(3)’s voter education efforts, however, must be limited to the discussion of the organization’s agenda and not on the candidates’ views on that agenda.

A 501(c)(3) may continue its normal public education and advocacy programs during an election campaign period, even if the issues it addresses are controversial. Most of the difficult questions arise when the message starts near election time or is linked to the election in some way, either explicitly or implicitly. Issue advocacy during election periods must be handled with care. In particular, the Internal Revenue Service closely watches issue advertisements during an election period to ensure they do not indirectly endorse or oppose a political candidate.

Voter education can also be undertaken by engaging candidates.  Charitable organizations can ask candidates about their positions on issues at candidate events, through questionnaires, or hosting nonpartisan forums.  Organizations just need to take care to follow best practices to ensure their activities are nonpartisan and treat all candidates equally.

Preparing Voters for Election Day

In addition to educating voters on your organization’s issues, nonprofits have an important role to play in preparing voters for Election Day by educating citizens about the voting process and their right as voters. Many voters may be unaware of new policies that have been implemented since the last time they voted, what documents are needed at the polls, the type of machines they will be using to vote, and their rights when they get to the polling station.

Nonprofit organizations can take a leading role in providing voters with information with the following activities:

  • Provide voter registration deadlines, election dates, and state election office contact information;
  • Remind voters which documents are needed at the polls, and their rights as voters;
  • Post sample ballots prior to the election and show voters how to use a voting machine;
  • Encourage your constituents to volunteer at the polls on election day; and
  • Provide voters with basic information on new election policies that have been implemented since the last time they voted.

This resource provides general guidance only and should not be relied upon as legal advice.

Quote:

“Engaging in the election process is important for nonprofits. First, our networks are made of deeply involved, passionate supporters, and encouraging them to vote helps build an even stronger, more engaged society. Second, it’s an essential way to bring attention to the issues we care about, prioritizing them for voters, candidates, and soon-to-be-elected public officials alike.”

  • Share Our Strength

Resources

Voter Mobilization

Nonprofits help individuals in their communities use their own voice in an election year as advocates and voters. Elections are the primary vehicle to ensure low-income and marginalized communities’ needs are prioritized by elected officials and the systems that govern elections.  Voter registration is only the first step.  Ultimately, it does not matter if someone is merely registered; their voice will only be heard if they vote on election day.

Encourage Americans to Vote

Your staff is overwhelmed, and capacity is stretched. You don’t have resources to host a formal “get out the vote” (GOTV) campaign. How can you help your community vote?  First, consider integrating these three factors that help motivate individuals to vote:

Personal Contact

Any type of personal contact close to the election from a trusted messenger like you increases a person’s likelihood to vote. In person or the phone is best, but personalized email, social post or mail help as well.

Knowing What’s at Stake

Likely voters are motivated by knowing about the potential impact of a contested candidate race or ballot measure.

Making Voting Easier

New voters benefit from any message or assistance that makes it easier to vote. Finding a poll or early voting location. Getting translation assistance. Seeing a sample ballot. Having a plan of when they’re going to vote

Mobilization Tactics for Nonprofits

For Staff

  • Include personal messages in internal communications with staff that include important election dates and information
  • Have CEO send an email reminding staff of time off to vote policies
  • Do a staff education activity on a ballot measure or the election’s potential impact on the community you serve

For Constituents

  • Put election reminders in emails: two weeks out, one week out, day before
  • Create a flyer with basic voting information that is handed out at front desk or during staff-client interactions
  • Recruit youth to lead activities.  People respond to young people asking them to vote
  • Create visibility:  In the final week, use announcements at meetings, events, and on message boards to make the election visible
  • Organize a phone bank to provide reminder calls for people your organization helped register
  • The day before the election, ask people where they plan to vote and help find polling places, if needed

Resources for Nonprofits

  • At this time, Nonprofit Vote is offering virtual trainings and can accommodate any nonprofit of any size.
  • Need help developing your voter engagement strategy? Use this resources as a starting point to ensure your constituents are vote-ready on election day. 
  • The IRS affirmatively states that 501(c)(3) organizations may conduct voter engagement or connect with candidates on a nonpartisan basis. Learn more about permissible activities here.
  • The League of Women Voters website provides tips for successful voter registration drives. 

Quote:

“Many of the Election Day blind spots, whether they be procedural or technical, that disenfranchise voters can be resolved at the level of personnel. If nonprofits are equipped with the expertise, the sensitivity, and training the process is streamlined and no voter is turned away because of preventable error.”

– ACLU of Georgia

Candidate Engagement

Leading up to elections, candidates devote a significant amount of their time listening to voters about their needs and views on policy.  In fact, they often are seeking opportunities to visibly engage with their community and constituents, providing an incredible opportunity for nonprofits and the people they serve to educate future elected officials about issues that are important to them.

Opportunities for nonprofits to engage candidates include:

  • Conducting a questionnaire of candidates;
  • Offering educational materials to all candidates on an issue related to your organization’s mission;
  • Inviting all candidates to visit your organization and speak with your stakeholders;
  • Hosting a nonpartisan forum or town hall for all candidates to discuss issues relevant to your organization or community.

 Engage Candidates in Three Simple Steps

Step 1: Share nonprofit data across your media channels.  Download the infographic

Step 2: Learn about ways you can engage with candidates as a charitable nonprofit and about Independent Sector’s engagement with presidential candidates. Learn More

Step 3:  Contact candidates for office, either through mutual connections in your network or through a contact form on their website.  Use our sample letter to get started.  Download the Letter

Quote:

Candidates and elected officials are the ones who can make change, and voters are the people they listen to. Meaningful change in policy, systems and legislation will only happen once people begin to identify the issues and voice those concerns with their local and state legislators.

– Habitat for Humanity

Candidate Engagement Resources:

Influence Policymakers through Issue Advocacy

All 501(c)(3) public charities can continue their standard public education, advocacy, and lobbying activities leading up to an election.  Elections often increase awareness of a wide range of issues and election season is a prime opportunity for nonprofits to add their voice and expertise to the policy conversation.  It is worth emphasizing, a second time:  nonprofits are permitted to advocate during an election year.

How to Keep Advocacy Nonpartisan

The key is to remain nonpartisan at all times, and not appear as though your activity supports or opposes a particular candidate running for office.  Here are a few tips to help keep your advocacy on the right side of the law:

  1. Advocate in years leading up to an election. Engaging in public education and activities in non-election years establishes a history of advocacy for your organization, so election-year advocacy is more likely viewed as nonpartisan.
  2. Continue normal levels of advocacy in an election year. Feel free to maintain your organization’s current levels of advocacy, but be careful about significantly increasing activities in an election year – particularly if you’re weighing-in on issues that divide candidates.
  3. Respond to an external event. Your organization is more likely to be nonpartisan if you are responding to an external event, like an upcoming vote on a bill, a news story related to your mission, or correcting the record when a candidate misrepresents facts related to your issues.

For more tips, see this resource on issue advocacy versus electioneering.

Nonprofits & Political Activity

There are several policy issues that impact nonprofits’ ability to remain nonpartisan, trusted sources of information in an election year. Independent Sector actively advocates to protect charities from partisan politics, but also clarify rules so it is easier for organizations to stay nonpartisan when advocating or engaging voters and candidates in an election year.

Resources: 

Creating Safe, Secure Elections and Increasing Voter Participation

Nonprofits and philanthropy collectively invest thousands of hours and millions of dollars to ensure the voices of all citizens in their communities are heard during elections.  This nonprofit work promoting democracy on the frontlines in local communities can be made easier or more difficult by local, state, and federal policy.  We can ensure our investment and work have maximum impact by weighing-in on voting and election policies that support our mission and communities.

Because nonprofits provide a trusted, nonpartisan voice that prioritizes communities rather than a political party, their input is incredibly valuable in policy debates that shape the security and accessibility of U.S. elections.  Independent Sector encourages nonprofits that participate in nonpartisan civic engagement to advocate by educating policymakers on how proposed voting and election policies impact their communities. 

In 2021, Independent Sector adopted principles to use when taking positions on voting and election policies.  The principles support policies that increase voter participation, prevent barriers to voting, preserve trust in the integrity of elections, and clarify nonprofit engagement in elections.  Using these principles, Independent Sector supports the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2021.

Although national debates about voting and election policies receive a great deal of attention, the most activity developing and passing new election policy occurs at state and local levels of government.  The following is a list of proposed reforms – already implemented in many states – that are worth considering as policymakers and advocates seek to make democracy work better in the 21st century.

Resources:

  • Additional Policies that Increase Voter Participation
  • Same Day Voter Registration 
  • Voting at Home or by Mail
  • Competition and the Electoral College 
  • Nonpartisan Redistricting and Ranked-Choice Voting
  • Voting Rights Restoration
  • Increased Growth in Voter Turnout

    We are grateful to our partners at Nonprofit VOTE and the Brennan Center For Justice for providing the enclosed summaries of policy recommendations and proposals. Additional information can be accessed in the 2020 America Goes to the Polls report.

There is a clear connection between the policies that we as Neighbors Together are pushing for, the outcomes that we want and the choices elected officials make. So we need to be engaged with our elected officials because the choices they make affect people on a day-to-day basis.
– Neighbors Together, Mission Possible

Winning New Supporters

In addition to election work bolstering nonprofits’ missions and their advocacy, it also is the primary vehicle to appeal to the next generation of nonprofit supporters.  According to research from the Millennial Impact Project, younger generations view voting, advocacy, and activism as activities highly likely to achieve real, long-term change.  Therefore, the report recommends nonprofits initiate engagement with young supporters through voter engagement and advocacy on issues important to them, prior to launching more traditional asks around charitable giving.