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Nonprofits and Elections? How You Can Engage Safely and Effectively

Originally written for and published by The Ross Collective (May 2024)


Recently, I worked with a nonprofit leader, Erika (not her real name), the Executive Director of a local nonprofit, on an advocacy strategy her organization could use to ensure the policy changes they sought had the level of support needed to pass and be successful. 


As I was talking with Erika, she shared a common misconception. Even though she and her team understood the importance of engaging in legislative advocacy to change and strengthen local and state policies, they were not properly leveraging the election cycle to elevate and educate about their issues. 


When candidates from her community knocked on Emily’s door to discuss what her community needed to prosper, she usually did not answer. She said she was too busy!


In plain words, the most important thing you and your team members can do in the next six months is to answer the door and the phone and engage with the political process.


Yes, we are all busy and overwhelmed these days. But as a nonprofit leader with subject matter expertise, your most strategic move is to participate - by answering the door and phone as issues are being discussed.


The best time to educate a lawmaker is when they are a candidate. 

We are in another vital election year, and it is about to ramp up even more. Presidential election years raise the visibility of all races - from county commissioner to city council to state legislature to Congressional races. 


But this also causes nonprofits much angst and the inclination to retreat into their foxholes and not look up for six months. 


And I get it. Nonprofit organizations are explicitly prohibited from engaging in partisan politics—anything related to political parties, candidates, and electioneering. 


And while it may seem vast, partisan politics is very narrow. As long as nonprofits stay away from discussing specific candidates, political parties, or endorsing candidates, you are good. Seriously. 


This leaves a lot of room for nonprofits to engage in elections, especially to educate how policy changes can impact your mission. 


There are many activities that nonprofits can—and should—engage in during election season. 


Nonprofits that engage—and leverage this big opportunity—will emerge in November stronger and better able to meet their missions. 


Elections provide nonprofit organizations the opportunity to demonstrate to future lawmakers — and to voters, donors, and others — that their issue is an election issue, one that people care about and will vote on.


Elections also give nonprofit leaders the chance to educate candidates and voters about policies and long-term solutions that will positively impact the people they serve and the challenges they are trying to solve—from hunger to homelessness to health care to climate justice, and other pressing issues. 


However many nonprofits are unsure how to safely and legally leverage the election and engage in activities that will strengthen their organization.


To help you out, here are 4 ways nonprofits can (safely and legally) leverage the election:


Train:

  • Host a training to teach your people to talk to candidates 

  • Create a voter guide or toolkit - you can see some examples here, here, and here

  • Community Solutions Voter Toolkit to End Homelessness (2022)

  • Nonprofit Votes Get Out the Vote Toolkit

  • Wisconsin Disability Votes Coalition Voter Toolkit

  • Share opportunities to talk to candidates - at townhalls, candidates forums, and other events 


Share info about:

  • how to register to vote

  • when and where to vote 

  • absentee ballots, mail-in ballots, in-person voting 

  • new voting processes

  • key dates and reminders to vote 


Educate:

  • Hold candidate forums 

  • Partner with allied organizations to host a candidate forum; just be sure to invite all candidates

  • Submit questions to candidate debates 

  • See when your local League of Women Voters is hosting debates and submit a question about your issue

  • Provide questions and information your people can share with candidates - this could be as simple as a fact sheet or brochure about your organization


Empower:

  • Allow staff time off to vote (this may be required by law in your state)

  • Allow staff to spend part or all of Election Day doing nonpartisan get-out-the-vote activities 

  • Encourage your people to sign up as poll workers or translators

  • Create a rapid response plan for your organization

  • You might receive requests from the media to comment on your issue. Be ready with a plan so you can quickly and effectively respond. 

  • There are many examples online you can use as a jumping-off point. Here is one example. 


 

More Resources:




Your Secretary of State’s Office



 

Want to learn more? You are invited to this workshop: 


Beyond the Ballot: How your Organization can Win this November

Wednesday, June 26, 2024, 10 - 11 am (CT)

Free for INA members / $10 for all nonprofits






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