A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Small-Staffed Funders Can and Do Influence Policy and Engage Voters: New Toolkits

To help more foundations get involved with policymaking, candidate education, and voter engagement, Nonprofit VOTE worked with the Council on Foundations and Independent Sector to create resources that would illustrate best practices and put to rest concerns. The result is The Voter Engagement Toolkit for Private Foundations and The Voter Engagement Toolkit for Community Foundations.

Democracy is more than an idea; it is a goal that requires not only constant rigor to achieve but constant vigilance to protect. And more often than not, it is philanthropic organizations—private and community foundations large and small—that are doing the good, hard work of making sure people can reach the levers of democracy to better their lives and their communities.

For example, The Fund for New Jersey, a small private foundation established in 1970, knew its success was dependent on leadership that evolved with the times to best serve the community’s needs.

In 2017, as gubernatorial and statewide elections were heating up, the Fund teamed with key partners to elevate the biggest needs and issues facing the state. Issues like criminal justice reform, transportation, and climate went to the core of citizens’ daily lives but risked being ignored or plain forgotten in the electoral maelstrom. To address these issues and more, the Fund created Crossroads NJ, a series of exhaustive reports meant to “provide candidates and other policymakers with a fact-focused view of the problems and a range of sound and workable policy recommendations that would confront the problems head-on.”

To produce each report, the Fund created task forces for each topic, deputizing its trustees to manage input from policy-focused nonprofits and topical experts from local universities. The reports not only outlined each issue but offered cogent solutions informed by the participating groups, including the Fund’s grantee organizations.

The Fund sought the help of a communications agency to ensure this work was seen by its target audiences of candidates and policymakers. This effort included not only a dedicated website for the report, but press outreach, meetings with local media editorial boards, and a strong social media strategy. Encouragingly, the new governor’s 2018 inaugural address included many allusions to the Fund’s robust reporting, and the governor’s budget proposal mirrored many of the recommended policies.

Where to start

In spite of the success of funders like the Fund for New Jersey and others, many foundations are still unsure how to successfully execute or fund public policy and voter engagement. Others are hesitant, wary of how to start for fear of appearing partisan.

And that’s what concerned us because we know that nonprofits are crucial in aiding civic engagement. Just look at the results of our recent report Engaging New Voters, which focused on nonprofits’ impact on those under 30 in the 2016 election. What the report found, aided by the work of over 120 partners across nine states, is that nonprofits not only successfully reached underserved voters of color and women but were instrumental in increasing their turnout to the polls by 6 percentage points over those not contacted by nonprofits.

To help more foundations get involved with policymaking, candidate education, and voter engagement, we worked with the Council on Foundations and Independent Sector to create The Voter Engagement Toolkit for Private Foundations and The Voter Engagement Toolkit for Community Foundations.

The core of each toolkit explores four strategies that get at the heart of voter engagement:

  • Communications
  • Nonprofit trainings and funder collaborations
  • Language in grant agreements and RFPs
  • Voter engagement grantmaking

These strategies are the backbone of nearly 20 case studies that highlight how foundations like The Fund for New Jersey, The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and others found success engaging nonprofit experts, researchers, and citizens to inform the policy process.

Having deep ties to local communities, small-staffed foundations are perfectly positioned to engage and empower citizens. We hope these resources will be useful as you continue to strengthen democracy and uplift voices often left out of the nation’s policymaking and political processes.

James Hill is associate director of communications and partnerships at Nonprofit VOTE.

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