Check out Bethany Snyder’s latest article for us below, which first appeared on the Snyder Strategies blog. For more about nonprofits in an election year, see the recording of the webinar Jean Kordenbrock and I presented in February, which covers both legal concerns and communications opportunities. Also, take a look at Bethany’s earlier piece on legislative advocacy trends in 2020.
I know! It’s only March!
Most of the country is not even thinking about the elections. But as a nonprofit, election season provides a unique opportunity to elevate, highlight, and educate the public â€“ and candidates – about issues important to your organization.
(Hopefully, your organization is already engaged in advocacy and making sure public policy is addressing our most pressing issues. If not, read this first.)
In 2020, all 435 seats in the United States House of Representatives, 34 of the 100 seats in the US Senate, and, of course, the office of president of the United States will be decided.
Also, 11 states will be electing their governor â€“ and there are hundreds of state and local elections. It’s a big year.
The best time to educate a lawmaker is when they are a candidate.
Does your organization have a plan to take advantage of this unique opportunity?
When I ask organizations how they are planning on using the 2020 elections to advance their missions, I usually hear, â€œWell, we are creating a voter guide for our members.â€
GREAT! Creating a voter and election guides is a good start. But that is just one activity â€“ and a very passive one, at that.
Many organizations are hesitant to do ANYTHING that has to do with elections.
Of course, nonprofits must abide by certain rules during election years â€“ especially if you receive public funding. But don’t be scared off by these rules. They are easy to follow. Read this comprehensive guide by Bolder Advocacy and check out their trainings.
You can also watch this recent webinar by epolitics.com.
Here are 5 ways that your organization can ensure candidates â€“ or future lawmakers â€“ understand the issues and solutions important to you.
1. Contact the candidates and ask them to meet with you so you can share information about your organizations and the issues you care about.
You might not be able to meet with a Presidential candidate (side-eye to Iowans), but you can certainly meet with candidates running for city council, school board, county commissioner, state office, etc. In fact, they will likely be thrilled to meet with you!
Local elected officials often have a lot of discretion and control over programs that may impact your organization â€“ like transportation, housing, education, etc. Invite your local candidates to meet up for coffee to introduce your organization and your work on issues impacting your community. Bring basic information about your organization and share how you can work together to impact local policies. And, you never know, your mayor might be President someday. 😉
2. Educate your donors, members, and supporters about your issues and how they are impacted by public policy.
Your supporters – especially donors â€“ may only see themselves as supporting your organization financially. But they may not be aware of how they can help advance your policy priorities!
This is where your election or voter guide comes in handy. You may assume that your donors and supporters are crystal clear about your policy priorities â€“ don’t!
An election or voter guide will articulate your positions on policy areas important to your organization. It will also help your supporters evaluate the candidates based on your priorities. Additionally, it can serve to outline which offices are having elections, key dates, voting processes, and how to find polling places. Here is an example of an excellent election guide.
Also, don’t forget – many of your donors and members already donate to candidates and campaigns and may have relationships with candidates you can leverage. Arm them with information to help shape your lawmakers’ and candidates’ perspectives on issues important to your organization.
3. Use the election as an opportunity to raise awareness around your issue.
At a town hall forum this winter, someone asked Presidential candidate former South Bend Mayor, Pete Buttigieg, about his record on housing and homelessness. As he gave his answer, I wondered how many housing organizations would use this opportunity to share their solutions to this complex issue.
During 2020, this situation will happen over and over again. Is your organization following the conversations? Are you ready to jump in and leverage the opportunity? You can create a communications plan â€“ RIGHT NOW – that outlines your key messages, preps your key spokespeople, and identifies your key communication channels. Like a crisis communications plan, this document will help ensure you are ready when these opportunities arise.
4. Encourage your donors, members, and supporters to be engaged in the election and VOTE.
Nonprofit voter registration is pretty standard. But are you doing it?
Make sure you have information on your website about how to register to vote, key deadlines, and the proper process in your state. You may even want to list the offices up for election this year. Then remind your supporters to vote when the time comes.
5. Plan a candidate forum or town hall meeting.
Obviously, this takes a bit more energy and time. But you can join forces with your coalition partners, or your local League of Women Voters, to host a candidate forum focused on a particular issue or sector. This is an extremely effective way to educate candidates, get them on the record, and engage the media and your community.
Now, get out there and make sure to educate your candidates so they can be true allies when they are elected officials.