Election 2016: The Social Sector and Democracy

A conversation with CalNonprofits

nancy berlin headshot

With the 2016 Election around the corner, we are interested in examining the social sector’s role in American democracy. This week, we speak with Nancy Berlin, policy director at CalNonprofits. Calnonprofits is a statewide membership organization that brings nonprofits together to advocate for the communities they serve. 

1. What role does Cal Nonprofits believe the social sector plays in the 2016 US election?

In less than two months, the U.S. will hold its first presidential election in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. While California is working to create greater access to voting, sixteen states have new voting restrictions in place. This could have serious consequences for many Americans -- but most acutely for the people and communities we serve as nonprofits. 

That's why we as nonprofits must be at the forefront when it comes to ensuring that all Americans have a voice at the ballot box. This year in particular, the consequences of our national election will directly affect the people and communities we serve. It’s never been more important to make sure that nonprofit staff, volunteers, and constituents register to vote and get to the polls.

2.What problem is Cal Nonprofits trying to solve in the American political system? How?

Why is it so important that the social sector make ourselves heard at our polling places this fall? Because nonprofit votes count. They count in numbers, and they count in the nature of their outcome. There are nearly one million nonprofit employees in California and over five million volunteers. And when nonprofits use our substantial voting power, we not only advance our own missions – we change the world for the better.

That works in a very real way. Consider: if everyone who worked or volunteered in human services voted, we’d have better human services funding. If everyone who worked or volunteered on environmental issues voted, we’d have a better environment. If everyone who worked or volunteered in education voted, we’d have better schools. When the social sector votes, the social well-being of our state and our country rises – and everyone benefits, especially the most vulnerable. When policymakers start to recognize the nonprofit community as the powerful voting force we are, they take notice and work harder to address our concerns – and that benefits everyone too.

CalNonprofits started our Vote with Your Mission campaign to mobilize California’s nonprofit workers as voters. United Way Worldwide, Independent Sector, Nonprofit Vote and the National Council of Nonprofits formed a collaboration to replicate VWYM nationally under the name Nonprofit Votes Count. A key question this effort has asked is: can nonprofits increase voting among our clients, constituents, and staff? The answer is yes.

A 2012 Nonprofit Vote study (available in a two-part report “Can Nonprofits Increase Voting Among Their Clients, Constituents, and Staff? An Evaluation of the Track the Vote Program”) shows our ability to raise turnout rates among those least expected to vote -- and to close gaps in voter participation across all demographics. Nonprofits were particularly effective at increasing voter turnout among groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the electoral process. Disparities in voter turnout by age, income, race, and ethnicity narrowed or disappeared among voters engaged by nonprofits compared to the large turnout gaps evident among registered voters.

Sometimes nonprofits don’t get involved because of confusion about the dos and don’ts of voter engagement work, or because we’re overwhelmed with day-to-day work. The good news is there is so much that we as nonprofits can do; our Vote with Your Mission webpage provides plenty of ideas, even for those with limited time and resources.

3. If you achieved all your goals as an organization, how would America be different?


Nonprofits help amplify the voices of those who are too often unheard. We are trusted, and have inherent values that make us strong and capable proponents of voter and citizen participation. Nonprofit voter engagement benefits the sector, our communities, and the nation—far beyond the outcome of any particular election.

Just imagine if everyone touched by the work of nonprofits made their voices heard and voted with their values. That voting power turns into better schools, affordable health care, a cleaner environment, and a better country, where people believe their voices matter. That means a better world for all of us here now, and for those who will follow. That’s what counts the most.

Want more information about the social sector and democracy? Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy is Foundation Center’s data visualization platform that captures the myriad democracy-related activities that foundations have supported from 2011 to present. Foundation Center’s new infographic series takes a deeper dive into the grants data made available through the platform to examine different areas of democracy funding, such as voter turnout.

Read Part I in this series, featuring Daniel G. Newman, president and co-founder of MapLight.

Read Part II in this series, featuring a recap a recent SF Tech4Good panel discussion.