Since 2005, we at Nonprofit VOTE have worked to help America’s nonprofits engage the communities they serve in voting and elections, with the goal of fostering a more inclusive electorate. But, until now, we never had a clear picture of the share of nonprofits—from food pantries and health centers, to arts and cultural groups—actually doing voter engagement work. That is: what is the current baseline we’re seeking to build upon? This is a question I have explored many times, in my role as executive director, with the diverse array of nonprofit leaders on our Leadership Council. Then, two months ago, we stumbled upon a recent survey of nonprofits across the nation from the Urban Institute. Buried deep in the survey data file, and not reported in any public documents otherwise, was a question about whether the nonprofit did voter engagement, including get-out-the-vote work, voter registration, and voter education.
As we dove into the data, we found ourselves learning about far more than simply the share of nonprofits doing voter engagement work. Indeed, we learned about which nonprofits were driving the trend and raising the bar for others—spoiler: nonprofits serving or led by people of color. Sector-wide, 20 percent of surveyed nonprofits did voter engagement work “occasionally” to “almost all the time.” But when you narrow the focus to nonprofits primarily serving Black or Latinx communities, the share jumps to 35 and 34 percent, respectively. What’s more, when we look at nonprofits led by majority BIPOC boards, the share jumps to 39 percent. And, among nonprofits led by a Black or Latinx CEO, one-half did voter engagement (48 and 50 percent, respectively). That speaks volumes about the link between voter engagement and racial equity.
We also grouped survey respondents based on whether they were in Democratic, Republican, or battleground states, but these groupings had little or no impact on the likelihood of a nonprofit doing voter engagement. Similarly, whether a nonprofit was based in a hard-to-vote state or a state where voting is easier did not impact the likelihood of the nonprofit doing voter engagement. This reinforces the fact that the community the nonprofit serves is the primary driver of the nonprofit’s likelihood of doing voter engagement. The simple fact is, there are underrepresented communities across America, in the bluest of blue states and the reddest of red states, and nonprofits serving these communities, wherever they may be, are stepping up to help solve the problem.
Other factors tied to higher levels of voter engagement among nonprofits include the services a nonprofit provides (like food assistance and job training), whether they primarily serve low-income communities, budget size, and if they are urban-based—but race remains the one factor that stands out above all others. All of this data is included in a new report, “America’s Nonprofits Get Out the Vote: New survey analysis on the prevalence of nonprofit voter engagement and its intersection with race, leadership, and community served.”
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In some ways, the findings are not surprising. These nonprofits are simply doing what they do best by recognizing and responding to a clear need: the communities they serve are underrepresented in the democratic process. This has negative impacts on the wellbeing of the community itself, while simultaneously eroding any political influence the nonprofit serving that community may have. This fact is something we’ve long talked about in our work, and it’s a motivation we frequently hear cited from partners we work with in the field—that is, rising up to address a clear community need.
As a white leader within the nonprofit sector, I see this data as validation that what we’re doing is important. It’s often stated in anti-racism discussions that one of the most effective ways white leaders can show allyship is to take cues from peer BIPOC leaders on what they should be doing and prioritizing. This kind of followership is far more impactful than any blog or thinkpiece a white leader may put out about their commitment to anti-racism. As the data in this report makes clear, BIPOC leaders across the nonprofit sector are making voter engagement a priority, alongside their work to feed, house, educate, and support the communities their nonprofits serve. White nonprofit leaders, especially white leaders heading up organizations that largely serve those left out of the democratic process, should take this as a “cue” to follow by building out voter engagement programs for their own nonprofits.
And as we talk about “inclusivity,” it’s worth noting that nonprofit voter engagement is about solving problems in an inclusive way. A nonprofit that narrowly limits itself to the provision of services like housing assistance or job training, needed as those interventions may be, are nonetheless akin to the old parable of pulling drowning people out of the river, but not looking upriver to find out why they are falling in to begin with. That nonprofit could invest time in identifying the cause of all that upriver-falling, commission a study, and then lobby on behalf of those impacted for policy changes to fix or lessen the problem. But an even more powerful solution would be to involve the people you’re pulling out of the river in that conversation, creating space for them to lead expeditions upriver and work toward a positive community solution. This is where voter engagement—along with organizing and leadership development work—come in. It’s about civic agency and making sure those most impacted have a voice in identifying the problem. This is a core principle that motivates many of the nonprofits we work with to do voter engagement work.
How nonprofits and foundations can step up varies from organization to organization. It could take the form of integrating voter registration into client intake, organizing registration activities in their lobby or in the broader community, distributing sample ballots and nonpartisan candidate guides as part of a voter education effort, or sending reminders about deadlines to vote early, by mail, or in person on Election Day. Foundations have a key role, too: adjusting grant language to create space for the nonprofits they serve to do voter engagement work, hosting or sponsoring trainings for their grantees on staying nonpartisan, or even direct grantmaking for democracy-building work. If your organization is up to the task, start planning now, see who on your team is with you, where are the leverage points within your organization, and what can the organization realistically do. And know that you’re not alone.