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Nonprofits Can Be Real Power Hitters When It Comes to Voter Engagement

by Greg Cameron
Nonprofits Can Be Real Power Hitters When It Comes to Voter Engagement

Much like baseball — where the metrics of wins, losses, and averages become the fodder for fan clubs and arguments across the nation — data and numbers also play a big role in how Americans talk about our elections. And while we talk about turnout numbers and election margins, the most overlooked number is how many Americans are registered to vote BEFORE getting to the polls. Because — unless they live in one of 15 states with Election Day Registration — they can’t just show up in November and vote. The real challenge to making sure the citizenry CAN vote is by ensuring their registrations are updated before it’s too late. And that’s where nonprofits come in. Across the country, these organizations put in a real team effort to civically energize communities most often left out of the electoral process. And like good teammates, there must be trust between communities and the organizations that serve them to achieve the ultimate goal.

To get a better understanding of just how this is done, and spread the model more widely, Nonprofit VOTE has published a trio of reports and toolkits. The first, Engaging New Voters, was released in March and went a long way to illustrate the impact of nonprofit voter outreach on client and community turnout. The report is based on data from the 2016 general election with a focus on people under the age of 30. With help from over 120 nonprofits across nine states, Nonprofit VOTE was able to study the habits of nearly 5,000 young people and the results they found were astounding.

The research showed that “nonprofit voters” — those contacted by a nonprofit organization that they know and trust — were nearly six percentage points more likely to pull the lever on Election Day in comparison to other registered voters in this same demographic (61% vs. 55%). This data suggests that registering to vote and/or pledging to vote at a nonprofit where one already receives services contributed significantly towards boosting voter turnout.

Who were these nonprofit voters? They were mostly youth of color — half as likely to be white, 1.6 times as likely to be Black, and 2.1 times as likely to be Latino. “Young voters and voters of color are caught in a vicious feedback loop that often leaves them without a voice,” says Brian Miller, Executive Director at Nonprofit VOTE. “Because political campaigns have limited resources and a win-or-lose election looming, they focus their communications on ‘likely’ voters with a history of voting, meaning young people and other low-propensity voters get only a fraction of the communication other voters get. And without that outreach, young, potential voters don’t show up on Election Day and the whole cycle starts over again.”

“[D]ata suggests that registering to vote and/or pledging to vote at a nonprofit where one already receives services contributed significantly towards boosting voter turnout.”

Additionally, post-program surveys show us the roots of civic engagement success at these nonprofits. Things like staff buy-in, partnerships, and engaging multiple venues and audiences were crucial elements to successful civic engagement activities. By learning from the success of these nonprofits, nonprofits new to the space can get a jump start on their own program roll-outs.

But uplifting the enormous potential of nonprofits is only step one. We must also engage important influencers that shape nonprofits and nonprofit culture. So in April, Nonprofit VOTE partnered with the Council on Foundations and Independent Sector to release a pair of companion toolkits aimed at helping foundations get in the voter engagement game. As exhaustive compendiums of strategies and case studies, The Voter Engagement Toolkits are the first of their kind. Aimed at foundations looking to support and encourage nonpartisan engagement among their grantees and networks, the toolkits are tailored to the specific needs of community and private foundations — which often overlap but diverge at crucial points. Both toolkits focus on key strategies: program and donor communications, nonprofit trainings and funder collaborations, grant agreements and RFP language, and voter engagement grantmaking.

However, it is the case studies — over 20 between both toolkits — that again show stories behind a foundation’s effectiveness. For example, The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving (HFPG) in Conn. went to work on a social media campaign called “My Hope. My Voice. My Vote,” in 2016. This initiative fit hand-in-glove with their mission of envisioning a future where all residents of the Nutmeg State have equal opportunities to thrive and contribute to the overall well-being of their region. This campaign used videos and social media messaging, used by their own grantees, partners foundations, and the public, to inspire and encourage people to vote.

“As more of us participate in elections, the more powerful our collective voices become at the local, state, and national levels,” said Linda J. Kelly, HFPG’s ex-president who helped to develop the foundation’s strategic plan. “This campaign encourages residents to vote and provides easy access to the information needed to register to vote,” she added.

The campaign launched on National Voter Registration Day in September, rolling out weekly content to over 112,000 residents and a campaign kit was sent to 85 public-facing nonprofits including family centers and libraries. The video element to the campaign helped raise the civic engagement profile of HFPG in the process as well. In the end, their staff looked at the data and saw that in 24 of the 27 communities and towns, voter turnout went up following this initiative.

For private foundations, voter engagement can take a slightly different form. The Graves Foundation in Minneapolis, Minn., ran an initiative to increase awareness and participation of the local school board election, routinely an election with a low turnout. The foundation has a multi-faceted focus, but their voter engagement work zeroed in on community engagement, issue advocacy, and leadership development. This initiative helped give local residents a seat at the table where local decisions were being made. The Graves Foundation created the “Animate the Race” initiative to increase awareness of this race. This was done with neighborhood-based social media which helped spur conversations with voters, neighborhood activists with others in the community. This multiplied the effort to over 1,000 users. Candidate and educational forums were attended by 150 people, and a year later, a city council forum was attended by 300 people. Graves also encouraged their grantees to get involved in the race.

Other foundations profiled in the toolkits revamped their grant language, hosted special trainings for their grantees, and in some cases, created special grant programs and supplemental grants to encourage voter engagement amount their grantees and broader networks. Lessons to be learned are found throughout their experiences.

Like any good team on the field or court, great things happen when a community comes together for a common cause. When it comes to voter engagement, the story is clear: nonprofits and the foundations that support them can succeed when armed with clear goals, staff enthusiasm, and a focus on analyzing and understanding the data behind their every move.

Greg Cameron
Communications & Data Associate, Nonprofit VOTE
Nonprofit VOTE is the largest source of nonpartisan resources to help nonprofits across the country integrate voter engagement into their ongoing activities and services.