Editors’ Note: As this issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly goes to press, we are in the midst of one of the most contentious election cycles in recent history. Confirmed in other articles in this issue is the critical role nonprofits play in our democracy, and particularly in electoral processes and civic participation. Nonprofit electoral activity has surged in the past year, so we asked two people who are active in facilitating this involvement about what nonprofits are doing this year and what has changed.

Heather Booth is a consultant who has worked since the 1960s with local and regional groups on empowering communities. She was part of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project in 1964. She also started the Midwest Academy, a training center for social action organizers. In 2000, she was the director of NAACP National Voter Fund, which helped to increase African American turnout by nearly 2 million votes. She now works with large-scale voter mobilization efforts including www.MoveOn.org, American Families United (a voter mobilization foundation), and Center for Community Change.

Mark Ritchie is the executive director of National Voice, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of more than 100 organizations that provides resources and support for political participation to 501(c)(3) nonprofits and their communities. He is on leave from his job as executive director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, MN. For the past 25 years he has led campaigns to encourage the adoption of sustainable production management practices to the forestry, fishing, and farming sectors in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. Ritchie cofounded, and is the current board chair, of the League of Rural Voters, the leading national organization promoting voter registration and Get Out the Vote efforts in small towns and rural communities.

Mark Ritchie and Heather Booth agree: more than any time in recent memory, nonprofits are jumping into broader public participation through electoral processes. This activity has been driven by concern around policy issues that affect nonprofits and their communities directly, and buoyed by a realization that they can participate and make a difference. Coordinated efforts among nonprofits at local, state, and national levels in combination with new technology have lowered the barriers to participation and increased awareness about what nonprofits can do and why it is important to be involved. According to Booth, the activity among nonprofits is “broader, deeper, more coordinated, more accountable, more strategic than any time of voter mobilization with nonprofits that I recall in my lifetime.”

“Many groups are deciding that it matters whether or not the people who are governing are able to listen to the voices of those who have been previously excluded or haven’t been heard as much—young people, people of color, immigrant communities—as well as people who are interested in these public services: having the museums open, the libraries open. So the real world is motivating people and saying, ‘We have to do something about it.’”

The efforts under way among nonprofits include traditional participants as well as a flood of new participants over the past year. According to Mark Ritchie, “There are at least a thousand significant 501(c)(3) nonpartisan civic engagements, projects, initiatives, and organized activities going on around the country. Those activities are extremely creative and generate a lot of unbelievably new and innovative stuff. It would not be exaggerating to say that there has been a tenfold increase over the past couple of years. In encouraging low-turnout groups to vote, boards and staff of nonprofits have taken this on as core mission to create state and city coalitions that form a new infrastructure.”

“Within many of these new coalitions, nine out of ten people sitting in the room are going to be new voters. And we’re finding them coming largely from three big areas. One is social service agencies and institutions that provide things to people in society, such as organizations designed to help people who are disabled, blind, or homeless. The second area is constituency organizations bringing in a broader spectrum of voters such as Latino, Asian–Pacific Islanders, and other immigrant populations. These are real voting blocs and they bring high levels of concern about domestic policies as well as immigration and migration. Finally, there are issue groups that might have done issue work or created 501(c)(4) organizations, but they also need to contribute to a more generalized message about voter participation.”

What Can Be Done?

Nonprofits are engaging in a range of activities including registration, education, Get Out the Vote (GOTV), and voter protection. Registration drives increase the number of people who are eligible to vote; education is about what options people have in the election; GOTV is important because there have been groups that have done registration but then people don’t actually go vote. And voter protection is about ensuring that when people are registered, they’re actually allowed to vote and that every vote counts.

On registration, nonprofits are making sure that their employees, clients, and communities register. They are doing absentee registration, change of address registration, and related information for people. They can even do registration online through their own Web site or connect to another Web site that can do online registration.

On education work, nonprofits can hold community forums and publish articles, as long as they contain nonpartisan information about issues that are of broad concern to the people in the community.

On GOTV and voter protection, nonprofits can give people time off with pay to go vote. They could encourage people to become poll workers, or the nonprofit could become a location for polling. Some nonprofits encourage people to go work on the election and take time off without pay, and there are some that even give anyone time off to work on this civic activity.

Getting Involved

The most effective nonprofit efforts are inclusive of board and staff. According to Booth: “First of all, someone has to decide that it’s a good idea that in addition to all the good work they do—their services, their ongoing programs, their institutional work, public education—it’s also good to have some nonpartisan involvement in elections. They should develop a little working group of people who share their views, coming from different parts of the institution so that the support for the idea will reflect different parts of their organization—whether it’s a very small local health clinic, or whether it’s a very large museum. Then they should try to come up with a plan that includes one of their actual goals: What’s the project? What’s the timing? Who will do what? etc.”

Beyond the initial working group, nonprofits should, according to Booth, establish a committee “that really reflects the overall institution and includes board support, or some official approval, so that you’re doing it in concert [with] both educating the overall institution and reflecting the will of the institution.”

“I would then suggest that groups get advice from people who have done this type of work before and consult with them about making an effective plan and understanding what are reasonable expectations, as well as to set up training for the people who’ll be involved. I also think everyone should get legal advice and be clear about how they’re operating, either with a legal counsel of the organization or using some of the very good legal information out there available to all nonprofits.” (See box on page 94.)

“There should then be an evaluation mechanism, and feedback to the overall organization. Amongst the elements to look at, I think it makes sense to do an inventory of the organization. Just as an example, think of all the people any size institution touches. Whether it’s a food pantry or an arts center, you have employees; you have clients or customers or people who use the services; you have a board; you have a community in which the institution exists… Think of all the vehicles you’ve got. You’ve got a place where people come . . . you may have bags that the institution gives out, you could write messages on those bags. You have newsletters, you have a Web site. All of that can carry the message … about how important registration is and voting, and getting out to vote.”

While many organizations are fielding very extensive efforts, Ritchie’s bottom line advice to nonprofits is to “start small” and use the many resources available. The National Voice Web site (www.nationalvoice.org), for example, provides nonprofits with many resources including a directory that enables them to connect with others in their state; a resource library that includes links to documents and guides to help nonprofits become more active; and links to volunteer opportunities. National Voice has also put together a national public media campaign entitled “November 2” (www.november2.org) that is built on the theme of public participation on election day.

Beyond November 2

While Ritchie stresses the importance of involvement in the upcoming elections, he also notes that the ongoing support for civic participation is essential if nonprofits and their communities want to have a long-term impact on the governmental system that affects and supports them. As organizations that are directly tied to people, and particularly to many groups who do not currently vote, both Ritchie and Booth hope that these efforts will reinvigorate political participation and reverse the historic decline. By engaging our communities in elections—including more young people, women, communities of color, and others who could participate more fully—our system will do a better job of reflecting the national will and serving the well-being of our communities.