Tag Archives: elections

Can Nonprofits Increase Voting? Short Answer: Yes!

It’s an election year.

An important one.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one, too.

But it’s certainly not too early to think about precisely how we can engage in the civic participation/Get-Out-the-Vote/voter empowerment process, as nonprofit service providers.

So, in case you missed it, here’s a really inspiring report from Nonprofit Vote, with case studies about what different nonprofits did to increase voter participation, and what lessons they learned in the process.

A few highlights, just to tide you over until you get through the 73 pages:

  • Don’t forget to register your staff. Really. Don’t forget that.
  • If you want people to register to vote, ask them. Individually. Posters are not an invitation. Asking people if you can register them is an invitation. And it makes a difference.
  • You can register people beyond your walls, and getting out to register voters also means building your name recognition and community presence, too.
  • Figure out what you want to measure, and then measure it. Do you care most about the total number of registrants? Voter turnout among those you register? Increasing participation among a specific population? Set goals and then hold yourself accountable.
  • Invest in staff training. Now. Voter engagement doesn’t necessarily come naturally to nonprofit staff, so staff development is essential.
  • Get people to pledge to vote–if they’re already registered, if laws prevent you from registering them, if you just registered them and you want to make sure they vote. Of course it’s no guarantee, but it gets you their contact information, and it gets them to acknowledge–at least briefly–that it matters if they show up. Both are huge.
  • Use peer pressure, like in group sessions where the interest of just a few can prompt broad voter engagement.
  • Partner. Remember that you don’t need to know/do everything, and you absolutely can rely on your field to carry some of the weight here. There are organizations that specialize in civil rights law, and they can help you with complicated questions/concerns about voting eligibility and restrictions.
  • Don’t assume that clients will view electoral engagement as a ‘distraction’–some organizations found that there was tremendous interest in talking about the election and issues and their rights as voters. You may find yourselves having to bracket this work so that it doesn’t spill over into other programs, instead of it being seen as an intrusion.

I’d love to hear others’ reactions to these case studies, or, especially, your own lessons learned from your organization’s civic engagement work. What do we need to be doing in February to ensure that our clients’ voices are heard in August and November? What capacity and support do you need now to make that happen?

What will you do to make sure that we keep answering, “yes!” to the question: Can Nonprofits Increase Voting?

New hopes for the new year

These days, I run on academic time, which means that mid-December is, essentially, the end of the year.

I will have some posts next week before I take a holiday break, until the second week in January, to make cookies and wrap presents and volunteer and read and–I hope–spend some time in front of the fireplace reading juvenile fiction with some very special kiddos.

But, today, a sort-of tradition:

My hopes for the new year.

In the spirit of holiday giving, I hope you’ll share your hopes for the future, too. Good news on your horizon? Cherished dreams you’re clinging to? Promises of good things to come that you’re no longer keeping to yourself?

At the risk of sounding greedy, I want them all!

Here’s to a new year, a few weeks from now.

Together, let’s make it a great one.

What are you hoping for? What will you do to make those dreams come true?

It’s only 4 months until spring school board elections!

Yes, I know, a lot of people are still recovering from the 2012 Presidential election. People who watch television tell me that it’s really nice to be able to do so without relentless political advertisements.


I’m thinking about our local and school board elections, set for the beginning of April (just 4 months from now!), and about how, especially in these smaller races that don’t receive nearly the same media attention, the ways in which we communicate about the issues, and the candidates, and the importance of voting are even more critical.

And that got me thinking back to a study in the journal Nature (which always makes me think about the time my friend Tim had a paper published in Science, and told me that all the best journals have just one name, I guess kind of like Madonna?), about the impact of social media posts on people’s political activities and even their opinions. The big-time science-y types who get published in Nature did a study that included everyone who visited Facebook in the U.S., ages 18 and older, on Election Day 2010 (61 million adults). They found that political messages in a social context influenced not just users but also other friends who also saw them. Critically, the effect of the social transmission–the fact that the messages were delivered through a social network–mattered more than the content of the messages themselves. If we see those patterns hold up in future elections, you just may be saved some of those political television ads in the future.

For methodology types, here’s a little more detail on how it worked.

Most Facebook users that day saw a “social message”, encouraging them to vote. It gave them a link to local polling places, and clickable button that said “I voted”. They could see how many people had clicked the button on a counter, and which of their friends had done so. But the remaining 2 percent saw something different. Half of them saw everything the same except WITHOUT the pictures of their friends–the information, but without the ‘social’. The other half saw nothing. When they compared the three groups, in such a large sample size, the scientists found that the messages mobilized people to express their desire to vote by clicking the button, and the social ones even spurred some to vote. These effects rippled through the network, affecting not just friends, but friends of friends. (Best part alert): By linking the accounts to actual voting records, they estimated that tens of thousands of votes eventually cast during the election were generated by this single Facebook message. It was an increase of 0.39% in voting probability, just by seeing the social message. As the analysis of the study cited, “Facts only mattered when paired with social pressure.” Furthermore, when they crunched the ‘friends’ into more precise types–close friends, with whom Facebook users interact frequently, versus the more ‘regular’ connections with whom one might not have much (or any) face-to-face interaction, they found that the size of effects varied as one might expect. The more distant ‘friends’ influenced the odds that someone clicked the “I voted” button, but not the likelihood that a user investigated his/her polling place or went to vote.

Without the institutional subscription that I enjoy, you won’t be able to read the whole article, so here are the pretty cool points:

  • Nearly all the transmission occurred between ‘close friends’ who were more likely to have a face-to-face relationship, and the effects were strongest there. It makes sense–I may get annoyed when my neighbor or my cousin post political content that I don’t agree with, but I don’t/can’t walk away from them. And if someone I respect points me towards information of which I am skeptical, it makes me think twice.
  • The effects weren’t just on expression–what people posted themselves–but also on information-gathering (who goes to look for what information) and actual voter turnout. Those latter effects were more modest, but, still, with some of the razor-thin election margins we’ve seen recently, even small effects matter.
  • The messenger matters–we know that it’s not just the quality of one’s information, but also the trustworthiness and relational power of the person(s) delivering it.
  • Scale matters, A LOT. The messages themselves and the friends who shared their activity, collectively, accounted for about 0.14% of all the votes cast during the 2010 election. That’s more than 280,000 votes, from one Facebook message.
  • One of the coolest things, to me, about this study, is how ‘real’ it is. People didn’t know that they were part of an experiment. They were just doing what they do every day–spending some time on Facebook–and, in the process, shaping their own (and their friends’, and even their friends’ friends’) political behavior. The implications are significant.

And, again, this was for a mid-term congressional election that was, after all, a pretty big deal. Most people, arguably, knew it was happening. There were many other messages in the arena, about the same election.

What about those smaller elections, where, if we knew what our friends were doing and knew that they would know what we, in turn, were doing (or not), we could see, maybe a few dozen votes in an area that we normally wouldn’t, in elections with historically very poor turnout?

Maybe we need some experiments of our own, four months from now.

Elections in the rearview mirror, through a social work lens

Like most people, I still have a lot of jumbled-up thoughts about Election Day on Tuesday.

I mean, mainly there is some relief–I had a 6-year-old whose world would have been shattered if Ohio had gone for Obama. And I really, really like that six-year-old.

But I also have the conversations–in this space and in my classroom and with social work colleagues–reverberating in my head, about whether the fiscal cliff means that big cuts in important social programs are coming no matter what, and about whether spending an estimated $6 billion to end up with the same basic political balance of power is, really a good investment.

I wonder about the dangers of equating activism with casting a ballot, and how that constrains our vision of ourselves as civic beings.

And I worry, a lot, about this call for Americans to ‘come together’, since I think this election exposes that we have very, very different ideas about a vision of our country’s future.

What does compromise mean, when people’s views about who should lead us broke down, to a large extent, along demographic lines? What will it take for a President Obama to come to an agreement on tax policy with Speaker Boehner, and what does it mean if he can’t, on any terms that we as social workers would want to accept?

What does it mean, for our future–that of our profession, and the policies that govern us, and the people we dedicate our careers to serve–that about 50% of the country prefers very different policies in almost all of areas where social workers practice (health care, welfare, education) than the other 50%?

If no one has a ‘mandate’, how do we move forward? Can standing at an impasse be a strategy, to hold the line?

What does ‘having a voice’, as so many people talked about in my social media feeds yesterday, referring to their votes, look like on November 8, 2012, instead of the 6th? How do we make our votes just the beginning, instead of the culmination?

Instead of getting back to normal, now that the ads that TV watchers see are done, how do we dedicate ourselves to a civic life that could result in a coming together that looks more like progress and less like capitulation?

I have more unanswered questions than I did two days ago, I think. And they are of more profound variety than, say, “what will turnout look like in Cuyahoga County?”

Anyone want to share some answers?

Vote. Just Vote. Now.

There’s nothing to read here today.


Thank you.

Can a ‘good’ social worker vote for [fill in the blank]?

As you know, I don’t see any possibly defensible argument for social workers to not vote.

We signed a Code of Ethics that includes a requirement to “engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice.”

Voting seems like a pretty low threshold for living up to that obligation.

There’s no excuse for not showing up.

But what about FOR WHOM to vote?

Our Code of Ethics also includes mandates to:

  • “act to expand choice and opportunity for all people, with special regard for vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed, and exploited people and groups” AND
  • “promote conditions that encourage respect for cultural and social diversity within the United States and globally. Social workers should promote policies and practices that demonstrate respect for difference, support the expansion of cultural knowledge and resources, advocate for programs and institutions that demonstrate cultural competence, and promote policies that safeguard the rights of and confirm equity and social justice for all people” AND
  • “act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical disability.”

Do those strictures tell us for whom to vote?

Are certain candidates unacceptable, across the board, to social workers, because of the statements they make or the stances they espouse?

Or is our only obligation to engage in the process, using our own ethical lens to determine which party(ies), or which candidate, best lives up to our ethical ideals?

Can you be a “good” (read: ethical, embodying social work values) social worker and vote for a candidate who supports strict voter ID laws that many civil rights leaders believe will erode these constitutional rights? Or one who opposes equal marriage rights for GLBT couples? Or one who opposes equal pay policies for women?

I don’t believe that our Code of Ethics tells us precisely how to respond to all of the dilemmas that can come up in practice, or in policy.

We are professionals, bound to a Code, but we are not robots.

I believe that ethical social workers can have legitimate disagreements about the policies to best support families living in poverty, or end child hunger, or help people who are unemployed, or protect our natural environment.

But my question, as we approach this critical election, is whether there are some candidates, and some issues, that really should be beyond the pale for social workers, even if, in some instances, the Code of Ethics runs contrary to our own personal beliefs, or what would benefit us as private individuals.

I know what the answer is for me, and for how I interpret our Code and live as a social worker.

But, for you, as you look at our profession, what do you think? Can ‘good’ social workers vote for anyone on Tuesday, as long as they’re voting?

Or does our Code point the way?

You know plenty. Just vote

This fall, several of my students have (separately) voiced that they have stayed away from politics because they “didn’t feel informed enough” to get involved.

And, I mean, I guess I sort of get that, after my initial recoil.

Social workers have an ethical obligation to competence, after all, and it is hard to keep up with all of the different races, and the different candidates’ positions, and what the fact-checkers uncovered this week.

And, for all of the talk about one vote not really mattering, no one wants to wake up the next morning and realized you cast a ballot for THAT candidate, without really understanding the ramifications.

But, really?

You know plenty.

So just vote.

What I tell my students, and what we need to remember, is that our ethical obligation to engage in advocacy in pursuit of social justice means that we have no excuse for non-participation. It is essentially not an option.

So if we feel paralyzed by lack of information, we have to find some way over, around, under, or through that particular obstacle.

Some suggestions?

  • Recognize that failing to vote is, in essence, the same net effect as voting for the candidate you didn’t want to win. So you’re not exactly ‘off-the-hook’, in terms of not voting in ignorance, even if you don’t vote. You’re there, you’re eligible, and so you figure into the equation one way or another.
  • Remember that there’s no absolute standard for intellect or even political engagement for voting. If we hold ourselves to a higher standard, as a ‘cost of entry’ than the general polity, we’re self-selecting out of the political process. We’re not raising the bar universally.
  • Educate yourself. Forget trying to understand every issue or analyze every speech. Find some issues that matter to you, a lot, and use them as a guide. I don’t necessarily object to the ‘single-issue voter’, as long as you understand that that narrow a lens will, necessarily, lead you to support some candidates whose positions on a wide range of other issues run directly contrary to your interests. But, still, if what you really care about, more than anything, is public education, then just spend energy figuring out where the candidates stand on that.

Election day is next Tuesday. If you don’t already have your absentee ballot, make plans now to fit voting into your daily schedule.

Hopefully you’ll have to wait a while, because turnout will be high and lines long.

You can stand next to all of the other people, who don’t know every nuance of every race, either, but who are there to make their preferences felt.

Just like yours will be.

When you vote.

We should not be applauding

Last week, I attended the keynote breakfast at the Midwest Conference on Philanthropy.

Eleanor Clift and our local political reporter, Steve Kraske, were the keynote speakers, and the topic was one that would lure me at any hour: the impact of the 2012 elections on the nonprofit sector.

I’ll get to the insights that I gleaned from the actual presentation in some future posts.

But the title of this one?

It refers to the introduction, which, honestly, is the part that has been stuck with me for the past week.

The nonprofit executive and committee member for the conference who had the job of introducing Kraske and Clift started his remarks with this statement: “Republican or Democrat, we all agree on one thing: we can’t wait for this election to be over!”

And about 2/3 of the room applauded.

And I was appalled.

I mean, I know that I’m in the minority, in terms of my fascination with politics. And, of course, I don’t watch television, which means that I am mostly protected from the attack ads on TV. I get the mailers, sure, and a few phone calls (how I LOVE political polls!), but I mostly opt-in to political debate and discussion, rather than having it land in my living room.

But, really. This was a room of nonprofit executives. Collectively, our ability to achieve our missions, and even our very existence, depends to a large extent on the tenor of social policies. And those policies are absolutely influenced by the outcome of elections, these elections.

So, what you’re saying, with your catcalls in response, is that you can’t wait to get back to your regular business, uninterrupted by something as apparently trivial as the future of our professions, our industry, and our nation.

We cannot afford to leave this election to a political vacuum. We have to be there. Not reluctantly, with our eyes half-averted.

Full on.

I’ll save my applause for election night. I’ll celebrate democracies that work, those who have poured their hearts into the business of winning the public’s, and, I hope, those courageous and visionary candidates with whom we’ll now get to work as elected officials.

I won’t be clapping just because it’s over.

A new framework for advocacy

September is mostly going to be “what has Melinda been doing” month.

And my motivations are fairly self-serving, I’ll acknowledge.

I have been working so much for my consulting clients that I really haven’t been doing nearly as much reading and exchanging, in the blogosphere or otherwise, to cultivate thoughts to share here.

And, too, I need a reason to sit still for a few moments and just reflect on, and sort of process, what this work is adding up to.

I hope, of course, that this is also at least somewhat helpful to you, the readers who continue to humble and amaze me, with your comments and your mere presence.

If not, well…it’s another reason for me to be ever grateful to you, for humoring me. And to the Internet, for giving me this platform.

My world was fairly rocked, and not in a good way at all, in the Kansas Republican primaries on August 7th of this year. Conservatives picked up way more seats than they needed, in order to gain control of the Senate, which has, until now, been a pretty moderate body, serving as a sort of ‘check’ in the past two years, as the House and Governor’s Mansion are increasingly far-right.

It was a big deal, and even made national news.

I don’t think that it’s as much a mandate for the policies of Kobach and company as much as a referendum on the inadequacy of the Republican primary–and, at least for now, the entire party–as a medium for moderation. In several of the races, where solid moderate Republicans–mostly very good friends of mine–lost well-financed, hard-fought contests, there is ample evidence that moderate voters just didn’t show up.

I’m still very much in the stages of grief, here. Some of my advocate friends joke that I may stay ‘stuck’ in anger for a long, long time.

We will almost inevitably lose issues that matter a great deal to me, including our instate tuition policy for immigrant students, decent school financing for public education, an Earned Income Tax Credit, support for essential social services.

Elections have consequences.

Even when that sucks.

But I know that I can’t stay stuck in grief. None of us can afford that.

Neither can we content ourselves entirely with ‘speaking truth to power’, not if that means beating our heads against the collective wall that will be the Kansas Legislature for the next few years.

We can do better.

I have had the pleasure of working alongside the Center for Evaluation Innovation recently, on a Kansas Advocacy Evaluation Collaborative, where we’re helping some of our strongest advocates–primarily in health–to develop new and greater capacity to evaluate their advocacy efforts.

One of the takeaways for me, from these discussions, has been this framework that they introduce to help advocacy organizations conceptualize where their activities are directed and the kinds of impacts that they can expect from them. It’s designed, in part, to help foundations and grantees understand where they need to be engaged in order to get the effects they want. For me, though, it’s also about reminding ourselves where else we can be–beyond just legislative lobbying–in order to influence other key actors and, ultimately, provoke change.

All credits to Center for Evaluation Innovation

We used this framework with the Sunflower Foundation Advocacy Fellows last week, as part of a discussion about how the Kansas political climate has shifted, and what this means for the Fellows’ work.

I needed this, at this particular juncture.

It’s like a challenge, to consider all of the places, and all of the ways, I need to be working. Where should we be organizing and mobilizing? What kind of research and analysis do we need? Are there places we can develop champions, in ways that might, slowly, build political will? What do voters need to understand, and how can we really reach them?

Certainly, many advocacy organizations have long considered all of these domains fertile territory. I don’t mean to imply that we’ve ever been ‘one-trick ponies’. But, now that our efforts in legislative lobbying are more likely to be thwarted–NOT that we should ignore the statehouse, in any respect–how can we piece together a theory of change that relies more heavily on some of these other quadrants?

How can we adapt and thrive, no matter how hostile the environment?

So that, in the end, we find new ways to win?

Vote: All the cool kids are doing it

I KNEW it.

In this case, that’s surprisingly unsatisfying.

See, I have felt for years that trying to guilt people into voting by emphasizing how few people vote, and how important it is, and how they’re really bad people if they (like all of those other degenerates) don’t vote…is really, completely ineffective.

And, here, research discussed in Nudge that confirms my practice experience, culled from hundreds of hours spent doing voter registration and Get-Out-the-Vote work, that telling people to vote because not very many other people do is exactly the wrong way to approach increasing voter turnout.

If we want to increase voter turnout (and, from the perspective of nonprofit organizations working with marginalized communities, we do!), what we need to do is channel people into voting, prime them for the voting experience, and, if we can…

make it sound like other people ARE voting, so they should, too.

I thought about this a few weeks ago in class when, despite the oncoming spring, 9 out of the 15 women in my class were wearing the exact same boots.

I mean, in marketing, no company would ever try to convince someone to buy something by stressing its unpopularity (“you should wear boots like these because only 35% of other young women wore them last season”? Not effective.).

We get people to do things, especially things they may have never done before, or may even be reluctant to do, by normalizing the experience, creating a like-minded community, and taking away as much of the uncertainty as we can, in order to make it really, really easy to make the behavior change.

So, what does this look like in the realm of voter engagement, since we want people to shape our electorate, not wear matching footwear?

What if we…

  • Had high school seniors register to vote as part of the classroom experience, when they turn 18, so that they’re registering as a group?
  • Used voter data to target those who are not engaged in the electoral process, by highlighting others within their social networks/peer groups who are? (“Can I register you to vote today? Your neighbors have really high voter participation, so I figured you would probably want to get registered, too.”)
  • Presented examples of reference peers voting, in a sort of micro-targeted ‘Rock-the-Vote’ way?
  • Implemented more user-friendly voting procedures, so that voting wasn’t such an extraordinary experience (like allowing online voting, or allowing people to vote in places they frequent (their own schools/colleges, for example) rather than the church down the street they only go in once every two/four years?
  • Invested in marketing campaigns that underscore not only the civic importance of voting but, indeed, its centrality to our understanding of what it means to be an American…a sort of, “everyone’s doing this, so we’d love you to join us” message?
  • Reached out to underrepresented communities year-round, instead of expecting that they’ll make a big behavior shift right around election time?

What kinds of approaches do you think would ‘nudge’ unlikely voters to civic engagement? How are you shifting from a ‘thou shalt’ to a ‘wouldn’t you like to, too?’ message?

How can we make claiming our civic right as ubiquitous as those boots?