My day with Robert Egger last fall prompted some new thinking, and reading, about nonprofit civic engagement. Where I have long helped nonprofit organizations to unleash the civic participation potential of those they serve, through client-based voter registration and Get-Out-the-Vote activities, I realize now that I had largely overlooked the employees of nonprofit organizations as a powerful electoral force themselves.
One of Robert Egger’s new projects, as he described it, is to mobilize nonprofit employees for advocacy and social change, independent of the organizations they serve, as those organizations are often difficult, especially in the short term, to pivot to this transformational work. And we face urgent challenges, not necessarily amenable to a long revisioning of the nonprofit sector.
I’m still committed to harnessing the resources–financial, reputational, human–of nonprofit social service agencies, to build a strong and sustainable movement for social justice.
And I think that that’s compatible with efforts to help nonprofit employees integrate their work lives with their whole selves, to become part of something larger than their own work contexts, and to, collectively, create the “army” of social change advocates that we need…today.
A big piece of that, I think, that can be immediate and tangible and, if we are careful with messaging and organizing, a first step towards the kind of engagement we want to see, is leveraging nonprofit employees as electoral agents.
We start from a strong position here: there’s evidence that nonprofit employees vote more regularly than the rest of the public. That means that, if we can organize so that they are voting from the values of the missions that their work supports, and from the knowledge that they accumulate every day that they’re working for the public good–in the arts, education, health, and, especially for our interests, social services, then we will see a much larger and more active “pro-justice” electorate, the kind we need in order to elect public officials who will be our partners in reshaping the policy landscape.
So what will it take to help our employees claim and exercise their civic power? To do so as individuals, in their own capacities, and yet motivated by the same mission that drives them every day (and, OK, some evenings and weekends) in their work?
What we have to do, I believe, between now and November, to lay the foundation for this “nonprofit employee voter brigade”, includes:
- Talk with our employees about elections, and about electoral issues–of course we have an obligation to be nonpartisan, and that’s not just the legal thing to do, but it’s the smart thing, too; our employees need safe spaces in which to talk about the connection between their politics (the issues they care about) and Politics (the election cycle that we sometimes want to avoid)
- Remove barriers to electoral participation–this means giving people time off work to vote, and providing registration materials at work, and answering people’s questions about the electoral process
- Transform our organizations into forces for social change, because working in a climate that focuses on root causes and encourages people to ask “why?” over and over again will push people to think about the kinds of structural challenges we face together
- Empower and recognize individuals, because people who are empowered to see that they can make a difference, especially when they unite with others, will be able to transfer those lessons, and that inspiration, to the electoral context, too
- Help non-citizen employees become citizens, by providing tutoring on the civics exam, free legal advice, and even scholarships for the naturalization fee
For many nonprofit employees, our jobs are callings. We live our missions every day at work, and we bring them home with us at night, too.
And we can take them into the voting booth.
And we should.
Because when we do, we will be a force with which to be reckoned.