Lisa Hazirjian, Ph.D., Win Together Consulting
What if elections were decided by voters who believe in your nonprofit’s mission and share your organization’s core values?
That’s the question every nonprofit should be asking itself as you contemplate what, if anything, to do to promote early voting and to turn out voters on Election Day. After all, nonprofits have a lot at stake in this election. The people we elect will determine our future state budgets, including funding for nonprofits and for services for the constituencies we serve. They’ll have the power to decide other budgetary questions as well, such as whether nonprofits maintain their exemption from paying most state and local taxes and how nonprofits might be treated in future COVID relief and responses.
More broadly, the people we elect up and down the ballot will have the power to determine policy on a range of issues as diverse as our missions – from environmental regulations to criminal justice reforms, from early childhood issues to healthcare policies, from labor standards to housing needs, and on and on. Elected officials pay more attention to what active voters – and what organizations with a track record of turning out their people to vote – have to say. Put differently, encouraging your staff, board members, clients, and volunteers to vote is a way to advance your mission.
Many of us working in the nonprofit sector have been thinking this way but don’t necessarily realize how much power our organizations possess to ensure that the people most invested in our success – our staff, boards, clients, and volunteers – show up to vote. And among those who see that potential, many remain stuck wondering how best to leverage limited resources to have the greatest impact.
It’s time to get unstuck – not just because we’re in the home stretch of this election cycle but because of the superpower so many nonprofits have yet to unleash: our ability to inspire and empower voters who historically have been discouraged from voting by everything from legal barriers to acts of intimidation.
This potential weighs heavily on me as I reflect on my recent experience hanging early voting schedules on the front doors of mobile homes in a town that’s been embattled over a surge of white supremacist activity in recent years. The vast majority of voters outside their mobile homes talking with neighbors, washing their cars, and grilling up some fantastic smelling chicken were Latinx voters – some eligible to vote for the first time ever in this election. Every time I approached a potential voter, I smiled under my face mask, made eye contact, extended a socially distanced hand to pass along literature, and fumbled with my limited Spanish to ask them to make sure todos los personas they know who poder votar show up este año.
I don’t want to diminish the value of what volunteers like me do to encourage historically underrepresented voters to turn out and provide them with information to help them figure out how. But what I did was far, far less effective than what nonprofits can do to close the voting gap and promote greater equity in North Carolina.
As the national nonpartisan organization Nonprofit VOTES shows in their 2018 report, Engaging New Voters: If Nonprofits Don’t, Who Will?, the relationships nonprofits have with members of the communities we serve allows us to reach voters far more effectively than well-intentioned strangers. “As nonprofits, we regularly interact with those who have been left out of the democratic process. By leveraging our deep roots and trust with the communities we serve, we can foster higher levels of voter engagement, helping to ensure their engagement, helping to ensure the issues of concern to the community are addressed.”
Think about what message it sends for the residents of a mobile home community who routinely interact with a local food insecurity nonprofit, a faith community, an adult ESL program, and a nonprofit-sponsored youth recreation program to hear nothing from any of those nonprofits about voting. Think about what it means if a stranger like me is the only person who lets them know anyone values their voice in our democracy and their vote in our elections.
Now think about what message it sends if those same voters get a multilingual early voting schedule with their food pantry bag, if their preacher talks about the importance of voting, if the volunteer who practices English with them invites them to go to vote together, and if their kids come home from practice with a flyer alerting them that some of the funding for their recreation program comes from the county commissioners and points them to a nonpartisan voting guide to learn more about the candidates.
Let me ask again: What if the outcome of this election could be decided by voters who believe in your nonprofit’s mission and share your organization’s core values? What if all it took was following seven steps that draw on skills nonprofits use in other contexts, engage your core constituencies, and promote your mission - would you do it?
What follows are seven steps your nonprofit can follow to pull together a “promote the vote” plan that unleashes your nonprofit’s superpowers as a voting champion. The election clock is ticking down fast, so you may feel tempted to jump ahead to tactics without thinking about what it is you really want to achieve. But these steps – even the ones that would be unquestionably better with way more lead time – will lead you to an outcome that's more strategic and satisfying than just running with the first idea that pops into someone’s head.
- Ask, Listen, Recruit. Who are the people your organization is uniquely well-positioned to reach, who stand to benefit the most from receiving your encouragement to vote? Who might need help seeing themselves as voters, or figuring out how to navigate the process during a pandemic, or determining their eligibility to vote?
More often than not, it’ll be the people you serve. If they aren’t already in dialogue with you about voter engagement, really try to bring them into the conversation you’ve been having among your coworkers or alone in your head. If you can have some face-to-face conversations, do it. If all you can do is grab an empty box, some pens and paper to create a sign asking for people to write down their concerns or questions about voting, do that.
It is never too late to start having these kinds of conversations; the conversations you have today are the groundwork for your 2021 and 2022 voter engagement efforts. Whatever input you can get will illuminate what people actually want and need, and the fact that you’re asking for input will convey that you value their voices, which is a message worth sending. When you find people who light up talking about ways your nonprofit can promote the vote, invite them to help create and carry out the effort; even a scrappy team of two or three is exponentially better than going it alone (and I say this having experienced it, in both electoral politics and as a small nonprofit’s first director).
- Focus on Early Voting. North Carolina's early voting period has significant advantages over Election Day voting:
- Early voting offers same day registration and voting. Many nonprofits have clients who are first-time voters or who move frequently, meaning they may need to update their address to vote. Registering and voting at the same time can be a powerful experience for first time voters and those whose voting rights have just been restored. And for anyone who hasn’t yet registered or has moved since the last time they voted, the early voting period is the FINAL opportunity they’ll have to register in this election cycle. Don’t let this come as a surprise to newcomers to North Carolina who moved here from a state that permits same day registration on Election Day! Consult the NC Board of Elections for same day registration requirements.
- Early voting is the only time when voters have the option of casting their ballot at any of the early voting sites in their county. Voting during early voting removes the need to figure out your assigned polling place, and eliminates the all-too-frequent Election Day experience of showing up at the place you think you’re supposed to vote only to be redirected to a different precinct. (As a voter whose precinct is also an early voting site, I invariably see this happen when I show up to vote.)
- Early voting offers the option of voting at a wide variety of times – including weekends – allowing people to find a time that fits their schedule better than the first Tuesday in November. Schedules vary from county to county, so be sure to find yours. TIP: Every election cycle, I encounter voters who intended to vote early but never nailed down a time and wound up missing the early voting period entirely. Encourage folks to put voting on their calendars as an appointment – date, time, location – and ask them how they plan to get there and who they can take with them!
- More times to vote means more ways to avoid crowds at the polls. With pandemic concerns hovering over everything we do these days, the possibility of voting at 2:30 on a Wednesday may be more attractive than ever to the same people who choose the slow times of day to do their grocery shopping.
- Voting early takes chance out of the equation. I once went out to my car at 5:30 p.m. on Election Day only to discover a flat tire. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that completely unforeseen circumstances can throw our plans out the window. When you make early voting your Plan A, you can still fall back on Election Day as a back-up plan.
- Envision Success. What’s the story you want to be able to tell about your nonprofit organization’s “promote the vote” efforts? Is it about helping to remove the barriers to in-person voting so that eight physically challenged clients who want to participate in the communal ritual of going into a polling place to vote alongside their fellow citizens get their wishes? Is it about the 68 youth voters who you talked with at your organization’s outdoor leadership program and signed up as voting buddies, and the stories they told you later about their experiences voting for the first time? Is it about the dozen formerly incarcerated clients who you helped learn about their voting rights, brought together for a conversation about how their perspectives could inform better public policy making, and helped make plans to do same-day voter registration and voting during the early voting period (something North Carolinians cannot do on Election Day)?
- Leverage Your Strengths. The assets and resources that fuel your nonprofit’s capacity to carry out your routine programs are your natural sources of strength for pulling off a voter engagement plan. Do you have a cadre of volunteers who distribute meals to the elderly who could be redeployed to give rides to the polls? Is your staff multilingual and game for serving as interpreters at polling sites? Do you run a clinic that’s seeing clients who say “I don’t like either of them,” who might not realize the ballot has lots of state and local races, too? Are you an arts organization with performers who miss having a live audience and might be excited to provide socially distant, live entertainment at traditionally busy polling sites in the zip codes where the bulk of pre-pandemic-audience vote? Are you a child care provider that’s open for business and has daily contact with parents who could use early voting information, or a child care provider that’s closed for business with furloughed staff people who might want to help by providing Election Day child care to voters or volunteer poll workers?
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach here, so give yourself permission to get creative about how to leverage your strengths to make sure you’re showing the people you serve that their voice matters in this election, put information into their hands to help make it easier for them, and encourage them to cast their ballots.
- Avail Yourselves of Free, Nonpartisan Resources. A wealth of resources, including ready-to-print handouts, are available on the internet from nonpartisan organizations that focus on making it easier for North Carolinians to exercise their right to vote. For example:
- You Can Vote has developed highly accessible handouts and an excellent What’s On Your Ballot guide, which helps voters understand the role various elected offices have in addressing issues of concern to nonprofits and the voters they serve.
- Vote411, run by the League of Women Voters Education Fund, includes an online nonpartisan voter guide where North Carolina voters can enter their address to find a list of races on their ballot with links to candidate questionnaire responses. TIP: Scroll to the bottom of the page to find the Voter Guide feature and launch a search.
- Common Cause NC has an extensive North Carolina Voter Guide that includes searchable candidate profiles.
- NC VOTER, a project of Democracy NC, includes both Spanish and English nonpartisan resources on voting in North Carolina, including links to sample ballots and nonpartisan voter guides.
For more information about what nonprofit organizations can do during elections, watch Everything Your Nonprofits Needs to Know Leading Up to the 2020 Election and read Answers to Common Questions about Nonprofits and the 2020 Election.
- Pick One Goal and Make it SMARTIE. Whatever will feel like success, come up with a way to describe it and a way to measure it. Check it against the Management Center’s handy SMARTIE Goals worksheet and be honest with yourselves about whether or not what you have in mind is realistic. Then put it down on paper and hang it up where everyone can see it (or put it on post-it notes on your computers if you’re working on this virtually) so you don’t lose sight of your desired outcome.
- Walk the Talk. Every organization that’s encouraging people in their community to vote needs to make it easy for the people within the organization to do so, too! You can do that by joining in with the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits and Nonprofit VOTE in offering paid time off (PTO) for all staff to vote (sign up to be a Nonprofit Staff VOTE partner). Adopting a PTO for voting policy eliminates the inequities experienced by hourly staff who struggle to fit voting in around their job and family responsibilities. And enacting a PTO for voting policy helps your staff to practice making a voting plan before asking others to do so. You can encourage your staff to take advantage of PTO during the early voting period by distributing your local early voting schedule along with a request to everyone to put a time on the office calendar when they plan to vote. Remember, the more detailed the voting plan, the better – include date, time, location, and mode of transportation!
You can go a step further by adding PTO for staff to volunteer as nonpartisan poll workers. (Reminder: Nonprofits cannot offer PTO for partisan volunteering but there are lots of nonpartisan roles to be filled through your local Board of Elections and with nonprofit voter turnout and voter protection programs.) Feel free to borrow language from the PTO policy recently adopted by the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits’ board.
By following these seven steps, you can pull together an exciting and effective voter engagement plan that leverages your organization’s unique strengths, lifts up your mission, and embodies your vision and values. If you find yourselves wishing you’d started sooner so you could do more, that’s okay; save those ideas and use this election cycle to pilot a program and get started now. The voters you mobilize could be the ones who change the outcome of an important local, state, or federal race!
Lisa Hazirjian, PhD, founded Win Together Consulting to help nonprofits, campaigns, and social justice organizations to develop strategy, build capacity, engage supporters, and leverage strengths to achieve their goals. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy, graduate certificate in Women’s Studies, and Ph.D. in U.S. History from Duke University, and is working toward a Nonprofit Leadership Certificate from the Harvard Kennedy School.
For more resources on nonprofit-friendly election activities, check out our advocacy tools.