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.
Working since 1982, Neighbors Together is a nonprofit devoted to ending hunger and poverty in Brooklyn, New York through multiple services including a community cafe, help with housing and even voter engagement.
We spoke with Director of Organizing & Policy, Amy Blumsack, MSW, and Campaign Manager Annie Carforo about the folding voter engagement into their larger mission.
Q: How do you connect voter engagement to your organization’s goals and mission?
In general, the way that we approach voter engagement, registration and GOTV work is that it is important to have a civically engaged community. We know that [the groups that we serve] poor people, homeless people and people of color face all types of oppression and stigma. These are the groups most often ignored and disenfranchised. We as an organization find it important to engage members who come here and fall into those categories. We help them to use their vote to express their values and hold elected officials accountable for what they are asking for.
I think it is clear that there are certain populations that elected officials know vote consistently, and then there are others that they think they can write off because of stereotypes and stigmas. We want to push back against that and let people know that voting is a way that you can push for accountability and results from the people who are supposed to be representing you. There is a clear connection between the policies that we as Neighbors Together are pushing for, the outcomes that we want and the choices elected officials make. So we need to be engaged with our elected officials because the choices they make affect people on a day-to-day basis.
Q: What lessons learned / advice would you like to share with other nonprofits doing voter engagement?
Having a ‘credible messenger’ and building relationships is very important when doing voter engagement work. Some of what is valuable about having staff and members who already have relationships with the people coming to us is that we can engage in tough conversations. You are more likely to have a real conversation about voting if there is a relationship there than if there is just a stranger talking.
Q: What challenges did you face when doing voter engagement?
At Neighbors Together, we have strong support and shared belief in voter engagement. It is a value of our staff and board. Where we do hear pushback is within membership. As we register people to vote, we get people who are disillusioned with the process of voting and with the entire political system in general. There are definitely those conversations where we are trying to change hearts and minds and let them know that voting does matter. We also have people who are already engaged in this way.
Voter engagement is very time consuming. Even when we have member leaders running things and helping with setup, we have some staff around as backup and troubleshoot any issues and answer questions to make sure it goes smoothly. There is a big resource investment into this work. It takes an investment and we do it anyways.
Another challenge for Neighbors together is educating formerly disenfranchised groups on their rights. Education is a major piece to voter engagement. People need clarity on who can vote so that disenfranchised groups can know their rights. People need to be messaged clearly.
It is important to get information out there to educate people who are formerly incarcerated and homeless about their voting rights and process. The laws in New York state recently changed about who can vote in terms of incarceration. People who are homeless and don’t have an address to register with should know that they don’t need an address to vote. Helping people overcome those barriers is important to us. We want historically disenfranchised groups to know their rights.