As state and federal budgets are tightened, nonprofits are being asked to shoulder a disproportionate share of cuts, while still being expected to maintain quality services. In response, many have stepped forward to advocate and lobby for their clients, their causes, and their funding. In addition to working with legislators, many nonprofits are recognizing the importance of mobilizing voters, and are ramping up their voter engagement activities. These voter engagement efforts translate into expanded advocacy, particularly when there are questions on the ballot.

This is readily apparent in Colorado, where the state constitution requires voters to approve any tax policy change at the polls. To solve the state’s budget challenges–which have forced some municipalities to ask residents for donations in order to keep street lights on–Colorado has two choices: increase revenue or drastically cut services. With looming cuts, as well as the possibility that a proposed tax increase will go before voters in November, Colorado’s nonprofit sector is preparing to mobilize around this important debate.

The Colorado Nonprofit Association’s Fiscal Education Network (FEN)–a project that engages the nonprofit sector in fiscal education efforts–has reached more than 750 organizations through its webinar series and in-person forums, exceeding their original goal of 500 organizations. In partnership with the Colorado Participation Project, FEN also instructs nonprofits on voter engagement strategies as part of a holistic approach to nonprofit advocacy.

Mark Turner, the Manager of Public Policy at the Colorado Nonprofit Association found that it was a natural fit: “Colorado voters make the key decisions on state fiscal policy. The partnership of FEN with the Colorado Partnership Project helps us empower voters not only to decide who should represent them at the legislature, but also how state resources should be used to serve Colorado.”

Colorado nonprofits are not along in recognizing the importance of broadening public policy debates. After a long, hard-fought legislative session, the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits is making sure that nonprofits know how to engage candidates, and will feature a workshop on hosting candidate forums at their annual conference.

The California Participation Project (CPP) works with nonprofits and human service agencies across the state, many of which have mobilized around the state budget debate. The ongoing budget crisis has helped demonstrate the relevance and importance of nonprofit voter engagement work by linking it directly with critical public policy decisions. CPP believes that by strengthening and involving a larger electorate, nonprofits can complement their ongoing advocacy efforts to address community needs and hold officials accountable.

Many nonprofits are engaging the budget process at the local level as well. Earlier this week, the New Orleans Coalition for Open Governance hosted a free training on “The Budget Breakdown” to help encourage greater community participation in the New Orleans budgeting process. LatiNola encouraged their constituents to attend, reminding them that Spanish interpretation at municipal courts was one of 22 unfunded priorities in public safety and was almost cut from the budget last year. By helping the community better understand the budget process, these groups are facilitating community-wide discussion and giving citizens the ability to influence how their tax dollars are spent on public safety, children and families, economic development, sustainable communities, open and effective government, and innovation.

Across the country nonprofits of all shapes and sizes are grappling with the impact of further cuts, and are using their nonpartisan status to mobilize supporters and engage the public around voting, elections, and public policy. These efforts have not gone unnoticed and nonprofit voter engagement will continue to be a critical tool in current and future budget battles.

Is your nonprofit engaged in budget debates at the local, state, or national level? Tell us about it!

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