Yes, I know there’s not a major election in 2011. Here in Kansas, we had some local and school board elections last April, and so I get that very few people are now (as we head into summer!) thinking about voting, and specifically, how their nonprofit organizations should engage in the electoral process.
Except that we must.
Because waiting until other people are talking about the elections, or we’ve gotten around to thinking about them, will be way too late.
If we expect that the people we serve, many of whom absorb multiple messages a day about their marginalization in our society, will suddenly see themselves as integral parts of the political process when we register them to vote a month before the election….
We’ll be disappointed.
So, I spent some time last week reviewing Nonprofit VOTE’s 2010 survey of nonprofit voter engagement strategies, and thinking about the lessons learned from that election cycle, and what they should mean for our efforts as we (yes, really) head into 2012.
The finding that, for me, was the most hope-filled, was that nonprofits are increasingly defining their voter engagement work as far surpassing voter registration or even GOTV. Voter education and broader civic engagement activities (sort of the “infrastructure”, in some ways, to later voter registration work) are occupying an increasingly important role in organizations’ approach to their clients as voters. Hurray! We need to make civic participation a default in the lives of those we serve, and we won’t do that if we reduce something as important as DETERMINING THE PEOPLE WHO WILL SET THE POLICY THAT STRUCTURES YOUR LIFE to a transaction that occurs on one day every 4 (or, if we’re lucky, 2) years.
We’re getting smarter about integrating our voter work, including voter registration, into the rest of our operations. If we want to do voter engagement year-round, which we must, then we have to do it sustainably. And that means including voter outreach in intake (which 25% of respondents do!), and finding ways to talk about issues and elections in normal interactions with clients. Still, half of respondents reported that only one staff person was responsible for the majority of the voter engagement work, and, as I’ve seen in my own practice, we have to think more broadly than that, so that all staff (and volunteers, and Board members) understand that we see our clients as co-creators with us of the change we want to see in the world, and that we share a responsibility to help them actualize it.
Nonprofits are starting to practice what we preach. Of course this survey, while it includes several hundred respondents, isn’t statistically representative. I know that. But, still, I’m encouraged by the almost 50% of organizations that encourage staff to volunteer as poll workers (including, in some cases, providing paid time off to do so), and those sponsoring candidate forums so that those they serve can learn more about the issues (bonus: the organizations have a higher profile and a stronger position from which to engage in advocacy, then, too!).
We’re getting serious about process. We know, and have known for more than a decade, that our electoral system needs some reforms, that people need help to figure out how to navigate the electoral process, and that our most vulnerable populations need special electoral protections. More nonprofits are figuring out ways to be involved in that work, too, working for reforms and educating clients about the system and connecting them to resources in the event of problems. That work can lay the foundation for a different conversation in the next electoral cycle.
What about you? What voter engagement activities is your nonprofit organization implementing? Have you started that work for 2012 yet? What are your goals for voter registration, turnout, and education? How do you see voter engagement as connected to your overall mission?