Nonprofit VOTE and Independent Sector are partnering to bring you a new blog series, Mission Possible. This series will explore the different ways a variety of nonprofits are embedding voter engagement into their work. We believe that even limited voter engagement can help you enhance your mission and drive positive change for your communities and the people you serve. But don’t take our word for it, check out these examples. Each month, Mission Possible will feature one organization and the unique way they are mobilizing their communities.
Established in 2013 by Louisa Hackett, Community Votes is a New York City-based nonprofit that aims to help local organizations integrate nonpartisan voter engagement into their mission. We sat down with Louisa to talk about her work and where she’s seen success.
Q: How do you go about making voter engagement a priority for nonprofits to marry to their missions?
First, I meet with an organization’s leadership to discuss program models and design. But most importantly, I have them identify how voter engagement connects with their mission.
Q: Can you give an example of an organization you worked with where voter engagement was not an obvious mission?
Sure. Phipps Neighborhoods is a large, social service agency that runs programs connected to their affordable housing projects. In 2014, we began talks about doing nonpartisan voter engagement – starting with their executive director to get buy-in, which is crucial.
But the key to actually getting voter engagement fully integrated into an organization is consistency and finding the right opportunities. I worked with Phipps over multiple campaigns with a small staff that periodically changed. Over time, they recognized that the voter engagement work they should be doing was internal as so much of their staff was the target demographic of a non-voter. They did an internal campaign and got 80% of their staff registered to vote. Then it became much easier for the staff to turn around and engage the citizens in the community they serve.
Q: What have been some of the biggest lessons learned or challenges when doing this kind of work?
The biggest lesson is understanding the staff you’re engaging with. First, be mindful that lots of these organizations have high staff turnover. But most importantly, learn to identify the “political nerds” in the staff – the ones who are willing to take the time to think about how to incorporate the program into their mission. I remember one employee, Yushu’a Smith (pictured above), took the lead in keeping track of all the contacts Phipps made with voters which was critical because it allowed Community Votes to be able to report on their impact reaching and turnout out voters. People like him are crucial because some staff can be cynical and feel like their vote doesn’t really matter.” .
Q: What advice would you give to a nonprofit who wants to get into voter engagement? Any good, first concrete steps they should take?
As I said before, get the leadership buy-in – whether it’s from the executive director or someone senior in management. That way the staff, who has to implement the new plan, knows and can feel they have the support of the organization.