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National effort urges nonprofits to mobilize voters statewide

Yawu Miller | 9/12/2012, 10:55 a.m.

As executive director of the state’s largest coalition of human service providers, Michael Weekes has long understood the connection between electoral politics and public policy.

It’s Weekes’ job to bring the concerns of the nonprofits to legislators in the State House who decide how the state’s resources get divided up every year.

But when Weekes held the Providers Council’s first State House rally in 1993, he saw for the first time the gap between the nonprofit sector and the Legislature.

“For many of the staff and clients, it was the first time going into the State House,” Weekes recalls. “People didn’t know who their representatives were and didn’t see the connection between the roles and responsibilities elected officials had and their ability to improve the quality of people’s lives.”

After 18 years of legislative action, many activists in the human services sector know their way around the State House. Now Weekes wants to make sure nonprofit workers and their clients understand the importance of the most fundamental level of the political process — voting.

Weekes has been elected president of the board of Nonprofit VOTE, a nation wide effort to help nonprofits undertake voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in the areas they serve.

“People in the nonprofit sector  — especially in social service organizations — have a unique role,” Weekes said. “We’re trusted organizations. We’re familiar with the culture and language of the communities we serve and it’s part of our mission to support civic engagement.”

Historically, many nonprofit leaders have been reluctant to get involved in voter mobilization efforts. Weekes said many in the nonprofit sector mistakenly believe becoming politically active may jeopardize their 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax exempt status.

Nonprofits can, in fact, engage in non-partisan voter registration and voter mobilization efforts. Nonprofits can also advocate on behalf of legislative policies and engage in advocacy around ballot questions without jeopardizing their nonprofit status.

“You can’t endorse candidates or rate candidates on issues,” Weekes said. “But it’s perfectly reasonable for nonprofits to host candidate forums or distribute candidate surveys or questionnaires.”

Weekes’ own organization, the Providers Council, hosted a gubernatorial candidates’ forum in 2010 that drew more than 800 audience members to Faneuil Hall for a debate on issues affecting the human services sector.

Making the case for electoral engagement isn’t always easy, Weekes said.

“What we’re really trying to change is the culture of the organization,” he said. “Very often it’s the person at the top of the organization who defines the culture — the executive director or the board. They have to understand that voting helps people become more invested in their community.”

To help effect this culture change, Weekes has been hitting the road, running trainings for nonprofits across the country on how to conduct effective voter mobilization efforts, organizing candidate forums and other voter engagement efforts.

Nonprofit VOTE also hosts online trainings for nonprofits and distributes guides and materials organizations can use to conduct their own voter mobilization campaigns.

One thing Nonprofit VOTE has not been able to do is track how many organizations have used their materials.

“We don’t know everyone who’s using our materials,” he said. “But we do know a lot of people have been downloading our materials. We hear from our partner organizations that they’re helping them and that they appreciate what we’re doing.”

Among the organizations that have endorsed Nonprofit VOTE’s efforts are the National Urban League, Goodwill International, the National Council of Nonprofits, United Way International and the National Association of Secretaries of State.

For more information on Nonprofit VOTE, visit: http://www.nonprofitvote.org.