I was always one of those oddballs who had a strong sense of what I wanted to do “when I grew up.” It started with my 8th grade civics class, and I especially credit that 10th grade American History teacher who gave us the task of rewriting the Federalist Papers in modern terms as an actual assignment.
The silver lining of being the only person who loved that assignment was the personal “aha” moment that came with it—a moment of clarity that I was passionate about people’s role in participating in their government. For me, that naturally took the form of working with some sort of nonprofit, helping to engage supporters of various causes in the process. And here I am working in government relations at the American Alliance of Museums.
But much to my surprise, over the course of my nonprofit work, I have regularly encountered myths about nonprofits—how they make and spend their money, whether or not they have paid staff, and how engaged most are in the public policy that affects the audiences they serve. Surely this is true for some candidates and elected officials, too. It’s not completely clear to me to what degree nonprofits are, or are not, on the radar of the average candidate for elected office. But there are plenty of good reasons why they should be.
The 10 Percent
Did you know that nonprofit workers represent 10 percent of the work force? That’s a whole lot of voters who care about a whole lot of causes. According to the National Council of Nonprofits, “In 2010, nonprofits employed 13.7 million Americans, or about 10% of the work force. In fact, if the nonprofit sector were a country, it would have the seventh largest economy in the world. In 2010, 9.2% of all wages and salaries paid in the U.S. were from nonprofit organizations and the nonprofit sector represented 5.5% of the GDP in 2012.”
And just in case there is any remaining doubt, nonprofits can engage in advocacy and getting out the vote—for many nonprofits, it is part of their mission.
A Broad Range of Issues
Many, if not most, nonprofits are monitoring a much broader range of issues than the public or candidates may realize. More issues means more chances to educate and mobilize our fields. And that means more touches with elected officials and more regular opportunities to educate supporters about the process than ever before. Few would guess, for example, that our legislative agenda at the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) includes everything from funding for the standard cultural agencies to national education policy, charitable giving, historic preservation, science education and more. We’re watching what issues are on the agendas of policymakers, where they stand on them, and encouraging nonprofit voters to do the same.
The Nonprofit “Newsfeed”
In many ways, many nonprofits are sophisticated—or at least active—communications platforms, regardless of the specific type of work they do in the nonprofit sector. From homeless shelters to museums, universities, health causes and everything in between, nonprofits are finding ways to utilize Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and other vehicles to identify followers and get their messages out. Not only do we use social media to follow elected officials, but we encourage museums and museum advocates to do so as well.
At the Alliance, our action alerts and legislative updates are pushed out over our various feeds, instantly reaching tens of thousands of people, each with their own networks that can be tapped with just a few clicks. In fact, in a world where we are all on information overload (especially in election years), nonprofits are often seen as a trusted, third-party source of information and analysis. That seems like a pretty powerful combination to me.
Early and Often
I treat all supporters as advocates, and encourage all advocates to engage elected officials early in their public service careers. Personally and professionally, I’ve been doing advocacy trainings and updates with local, regional, and national groups of various sizes for over 12 years. Almost every single one of those sessions includes among its “calls-to-action” two elements:
By virtue of doing the work or service you do (as a volunteer) you are inherently an advocate for that cause and should consider yourself as such. Today’s school board or city council member is tomorrow’s state legislator and next year’s member of Congress or Governor, and none of those people became an arts, environment or business candidate overnight.
The point is that advocacy efforts include making the indelible point on advocates that it’s our job to engage and educate elected officials and candidates early in their careers, and regularly throughout their public service. In short, we’re sending voters your way.
In my experience, nonprofit employees tend to represent a super-engaged portion of the electorate. For starters, nonprofit workers have chosen to do mission-based work. The full-time job is often just the tip of the iceberg. Including myself, the nonprofit workers I know are passionate about women’s issues, civil rights issues, health and environmental issues, immigration, homelessness, and a wide range of others.
Whether it’s being a companion to a person with disabilities, serving at a local animal shelter, food bank or community garden, volunteering at a local museum, school or library, participating in the performing arts, or writing their own blogs, my nonprofit colleagues are some of the most engaged, connected, and followed people I know. Many of us serve on the boards and committees of additional community organizations, giving us multiple platforms and networks for sharing our opinions and analysis.
Indeed, for those of us who work in the advocacy arena, it’s in our nature (read: unavoidable) to apply those skills to any issue we care about whether it’s class size at a local school, or an issue before the planning and zoning commission. Nonprofits and the people who work for them are paying attention.
New research by NonprofitVote shows the ability of nonprofits to increase voter turnout among the traditionally diverse and underrepresented voters they often serve, noting that “voter turnout of nonprofit voters [voters encouraged to vote or register by nonprofits whose services they access] compared to all registered voters was 18 points higher for Latino voters, 15 points higher for voters under the age of 30, and 15 points higher for voters with household incomes under $25,000.”
The bottom line is that nonprofits are powered by people, and those people are voters. The American Alliance of Museums, for example, encourages museums to participate in National Voter Registration Day and to regularly communicate with their elected officials in all of the ways supported by the IRS rules governing nonprofits. The real question is whether elected officials and candidates will be listening.
Ember Farber is the assistant director for advocate engagement/government relations & advocacy at the American Alliance of Museums.