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 1982, Options for Community Living has been helping those most in need find supportive housing living in Long Island, NY. While starting with those with serious mental illness, Options later expanded to include helping those with HIV/AIDS, high-need Medicare users and those with chronic illnesses.
In 2019, they added voter engagement to their work by creating “pledge to vote” cards and disseminating them at different sites within the community. We talked with Robin Sayles, the Director of Supportive Housing, to learn more.
Q: How do you connect voter engagement to your organization’s goals and mission?
A big portion of why we do what we do is to help people regain independence and community involvement. We believe that being able to engage civically is a big part of that. At Options for Community Living, we work on all areas of life. We work on housing — which we see as foundational. When someone has safe housing, they are able to branch out to other things like a job, family and health. Voting is another extension of that. We have always done work on voting and assistance for these reasons.
Q: What lessons learned / advice would you give to other nonprofits doing voter engagement?
You have to have the right group of people to spearhead the voter registration project for your organization. I think the people that were on our committee were the ones who were motivated to sell the project.
An education aspect is also an important part of engaging voters. In some of the one-on-one conversations that our case managers have with our residents, it also requires them to educate a person as to why it might be beneficial for them to register or vote. Just asking them to register or pledge to vote doesn’t necessarily convey why this might be beneficial to them. Last year, when we got our grant, we were able to have people directly talk to residents about voting. It opened up the door for this educational part where people could ask questions about voting and have it explained. I think it was part of changing some of our turnout.
Q: What challenges did you face?
Some people we encounter express concerns about partisanship. We want to make sure everyone is comfortable and understands that no one is telling them who to vote for but that we want them to be involved. Our case managers engage with our clients and that is a good time to have a conversation about voting but often times political conversations are difficult and some people have strong opinions. People shy away from the engagement out of fear of those types of hard conversations. We would love to learn avenues or language that presents things as neutral while still explaining why it is important to be involved in the process.
Transportation is another challenge we have. We are located on Long Island and it is not as convenient for people to get to the polls. A lot of our residents don’t own personal vehicles and have to use public transport that is difficult to navigate and doesn’t always put people close to a polling place. We have tried to use different avenues to transport people. It is part of our accessibility plan to ensure that our residents can be successful in what they want to do, and if transportation is a barrier to getting to the polls, it is something we want to work on with them.