During this intense campaign season, it is tempting to keep our heads down, do our work and avoid the political process that seems divisive and pugilistic.
But nonprofit leaders cannot afford to luxuriate as complacent, naïve supplicants in American politics. Elected officials and appropriation committee members control much of our funding and need to understand the immense scope and value of our work.
New polling shows that the American public generally has a very favorable impression of the nonprofit sector. However, the politicians they elect often have a dated, simplistic image of our sector. It would be a travesty if a strong, well-considered sector does not rally to get out the vote and inform the candidates about nonprofit programs and services that are critical to the well-being of their constituents and their districts.
A number of recent and pending legislative actions – from the sequester to proposals to eliminate the charitable income tax deduction – seriously affect the ability of nonprofits to continue providing much-needed services to our clients. The current push to overturn the Johnson Amendment, in which faith-based nonprofits are caught in the middle, can make us even more apprehensive to get involved in politics.
Our missions to unleash potential and increase the well-being of our fellow Americans demand that we also become advocates. Encouraging others to vote, or even supporting legislation that benefits our clients, does not mean taking a political position or being partisan. You will need friends on both sides of the political aisle.
Voting cannot become the exclusive domain of college educated, upper-class Americans. Voting is the foundation of our democracy. We must aggressively encourage the people who trust and know us to vote. State, local and federal politicians will have a profound impact on the lives of most people in our country. Remind people that this is more than just a presidential campaign.
According to David Nir, political director of Daily Kos, there are 519,682 elected officials in this country. Many of them are up for election, including school boards, special districts and county offices. They will make major decisions that directly impact your community, your neighborhood and your life.
Nonprofits can and should help people in their communities exercise the right to vote. We must educate ourselves and proactively pursue nonpartisan ways to promote voting and engage candidates. Organizations such as Nonprofit VOTE and the National Council of Nonprofits are working to provide resources, such as the recently released Nonprofits, Voting and Elections guide (www.nonprofitvote.org/nonprofits-voting-elections), which provides advice on how nonprofits and their staffs can promote voter registration, conduct voter education, talk to candidates, work on ballot measures and encourage the people they serve to participate and vote.
Nonprofit leaders must remember that our mission does not end with providing services to our constituents, especially those of us in the human services field. We must also be advocates acting in the long-term best interests of those who need us.
As we head into the home stretch toward Nov. 8, get involved in the electoral process, and actively encourage others to do the same. Put signs reminding people to vote in your lobby, provide voter information on your website, drive your residents, program participants and staff to the polls. Make sure your staff knows they can take the time to vote, even if the lines are long.
As long as you do not wear the T-shirt of your candidate or tell others how to vote you are acting within the IRS guidelines. Send a simple message – VOTE!
Jatrice Martel Gaiter is executive vice president, external affairs at Volunteers of America in Alexandria, Va. Her email is JMGaiter@voa.org