Mission Essential: Nonprofits Vote
One of my favorite finds, in some of my research for this blog several months ago, is Nonprofit Vote, an organization dedicated to helping nonprofits do voter engagement work right. That means that they identify, support, and applaud efforts that are sustainable, integrated, mission-consistent, and, most of all, impactful.
As we tick down to one year until one of the most important elections I can remember (and, yes, I do kind of say that about most of them!), I’ve been reading through some of the case studies and empirical analyses of what makes a successful voter effort by a nonprofit organization, particularly with an eye towards models that work for social service agencies. Nonprofit Votes has hosted some webinars highlighting successes, and there are some lessons learned that are very much worth sharing.
Face-to-face contact is by far the most effective way to increase voter turnout (increasing turnout anywhere between 6-14%, depending on the population and the type of election), especially with underrepresented populations. Of course, making those face-to-face contacts with potential voters is very time-consuming and extremely expensive…unless you happen to see them on a regular basis anyway because, I don’t know, maybe they are your clients?
The particular study from which I’ve pulled these data was conducted with nonprofit social service agencies, working with a variety of constituencies, in Michigan, and it’s a scientifically rigorous examination of how agency-based voter engagement, specifically, impacts voter behavior. That means that they had random assignment to control and “treatment” groups, the latter defined here as one group at each agency that received a voter registration appeal only and one group that had more sustained communication around voting and its significance. Importantly, some of the participating agencies had NEVER done voter work with their clients before, which makes the results all the more promising, especially for those who might be (wrongly!) thinking that it’s too late for them to develop a 2012 strategy.
The key findings, the ones that I think are so exciting? Clients in both treatment groups had a higher likelihood of voting than those in the control group. The likelihood of voter turnout increases proportionally with the nonprofits’ level of voter engagement effort, so it really does pay to go beyond just putting up the “Please Vote” posters (probability of voting increased by about 9% with each contact). Clients in both treatment groups were not only more likely to vote, but also more likely to encourage their family and friends to vote, which means that the same “word-of-mouth” system on which we rely for referrals and health education and so many other critical functions works for encouraging civic participation, too, allowing nonprofits to expand their reach far beyond those they directly serve. Among all forms of voter assistance nonprofits provided, new voter registrations and voting reminders were the two forms of contact that make the biggest difference in increasing voter turnout.
There’s nothing “magic” about these organizations, or about the people they serve. Your clients are likely just as responsive to thoughtful, targeted, sustained communication about voting and why it matters as these folks were, and your organization just as capable of integrating these activities into your work.
In the world of social services, we devote considerable energy to emerging practices with success rates that are anything but guaranteed.
We know that changing the face of the electorate in the United States will make a difference in the kind of hearing our concerns receive, and the kinds of public policy priorities that rise to the top of the agenda.
And now we know something more about how to make that happen.
And so we must.