Nonprofits and foundations, time to ramp up our voter engagement and election work!

[A hand with a “I voted” sticker stuck to the index finger. Image by Phillip Goldsberry on Unsplash]

Hi everyone, it’s my birthday this week (March 12). If you’d like to help me celebrate, please donate to organizations such as the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, and continue advocating for a permanent ceasefire, a restoration of UNRWA funding, and a free Palestine.

Meanwhile, if you’re free on March 28th at 11am Pacific Time, join me and Nonprofit VOTE for Rally the Sector: Nonprofits and Election 2024. We’ll be talking about nonprofits and the role we play in getting people to vote. It’ll be fun! Register here. It’s free, and automated captions will be available.

A while ago, I mentioned that if we’re going to solve some of these deeply entrenched problems in our society, nonprofits will need to focus on moving the levers of power. These levers include 1. electing more progressive women of color into office 2. changing the tax code so rich people and corporations pay their fair share, 3. reversing Citizens United and making other efforts to reduce the influence of corporations on politics, 4. changing the narratives and conversations people are having so they’re not so easily manipulated by misinformation, fear, and bigotry.

And 5. protecting and advancing voting and voting rights. This year is a particularly vital election year in the US (and, unfortunately, what happens in the US affects the entire world). It’s time nonprofits and foundations fully embrace our role in voter engagement and civic participation and increase tenfold our involvement in these activities.

I know there’s been a lot of confusion and trepidation out there regarding doing this type of work. For decades, nonprofits have been told they shouldn’t engage in politics, and many funders have not helped by advancing the idea that nonprofits should avoid advocacy, lobbying, and other “political” activities. We’ve also as a sector bought into this idea of “mission creep” where anything not directly related to an org’s main mission means they’re straying from the mission, which we’ve internalized is a very bad thing to do.

We all need to adopt a new mindset. It is NOT mission drift to do voter engagement. EVERY single nonprofit out there, no matter what its mission is, should be participating in voter engagement. This is because every issue we care about—from homelessness, to education, to the environment, to poverty, to the arts, to animal welfare, etc.—is related to the inequitable systems we’re forced to endure. And we can change these systems by ensuring our government at every level reflect its people and their will. And we do that by helping people vote and participate in democracy.

Nonprofits can and do play a significant role, and we need to embrace it. According to the Nonprofit Power report from Nonprofit VOTE:

voters who were engaged by nonprofits about voting were much more likely to cast a ballot than comparable voters – 10 percentage points more likely (56% vs 46%). The turnout boost was even higher among historically underrepresented groups. Younger voters (18 to 24) engaged by nonprofits were 14 percentage points more likely to vote than comparable young voters. People of color engaged by nonprofits were 12 percentage points more likely to vote. Low-income voters also saw double-digit boosts in turnout. These findings provide a compelling case for more nonprofits to engage the communities they serve in voting and elections.”

And there is wide public support of nonprofits doing voter engagement work. According to a survey conducted by Independent Sector, seven in ten voters say they support the idea of nonprofits engaging in voter support services, such as voter registration, reminding people of election days, and providing transportation for voting purposes.

With all that in mind, it’s time for our entire sector to ramp up its work in this area. I encourage every nonprofit, no matter the mission, to be following Nonprofit VOTE’s recommendations, which include:

  • Host a National Voter Registration Day event on September 17th 2024. Let’s make this a big annual event for our sector, when every nonprofit participates in some way. Here are some details and resources.
  • Give your staff paid time off to vote and to volunteer in voter engagement efforts. About three out of five states require employers to give employees time off to participate in voting. Nonprofits can go further by make sure this time is paid, which makes it a lot more equitable. Build it into your org policy. Here’s a toolkit.  
  • Remind your community of important dates and actions, such as voter registration, early voting, vote-by-mail, election days, critical deadlines, etc. Have it be a regular part of your newsletter. Build it into your social media campaign.


  • Increase your funding for organizations led by and serving marginalized communities: According to this report, nonprofits serving marginalized people are more likely to do voter engagement, with Black- and Latine-led organizations doing 35% and 34% respectively, compared to 15% of orgs that indicated they served the general public. Nearly half (38 to 50%) of org that are led by people of color (their ED/CEO are of color, or most of their board, of most of their staff are people of color) participate in voter engagement efforts, again compared to 20% of nonprofits in general.
  • Review your current strategic plan, and if it doesn’t include funding voter engagement work, revise your plan to include it. Please understand that your reticence to fund voter engagement and related work over the past several decades has contributed to the worsening of practically all the problems nonprofits are trying to address. Do not make the same mistake again. Democracy faces an existential threat, and we need funders to understand what’s at stake.
  • Raise your payout rate and significantly increase your funding for voting and civic engagement efforts. If you’re already funding voter engagement work, thank you. Please increase the amount in your budget for it. Raise your payout rate beyond the minimum 5% if you haven’t done so. This is it, this is the rainy day you’ve been saving up your endowments for years for.
  • Educate and encourage your Donor-Advised Fund donors to release their money to support voter engagement efforts. And just to support nonprofits in general. Research shows that as nonprofits grow in size, they are much more likely to engage in voter registration work. According to the report referenced above, nonprofits with budgets over 500K are about twice more likely to do voter engagement than those with less than 500K, 28% to 15%.
  • Here’s a toolkit for community and public foundations with lots of recommendations and case studies.
  • Give your staff paid time off to vote and volunteer as well.

Here are some other awesome resources from our friends at Nonprofit VOTE:

Thank you to all the organizations and colleagues who have been working on voter engagement and election activities. The rest of us, let’s do our part. See you on 3/28 for the webinar.