How the Philanthropic Sector Can Rise to the Challenge

Our communities are stronger when our democratic institutions reflect the full diversity of its citizens. Gaps in voter participation, often drawn along the lines of race, income, age, and education level, are a barrier to this full and inclusive participation. Political campaigns perpetuate these gaps by focusing their limited resources on contacting “likely” voters resulting in segments of voters not being contacted, not voting due to lack of awareness or engagement, and creating a cycle that reinforces this exclusion.

To build a more inclusive democracy, we need to create civic ecosystems that bring under-represented communities to the table. By tapping the vast reach of America’s nonprofits, we can engage communities at scale and foster a more inclusive democracy.

Data compiled by Nonprofit VOTE shows that nonprofits can be extremely effective at reaching underrepresented communities and populations most likely to be overlooked by partisan campaigns. This same research shows that nonprofit engagement can significantly boost voter turnout, particularly among underrepresented communities. However, Independent Sector and Urban Institute data indicate that only 14–20 percent of nonprofits in the United States report doing voter engagement work. Rates of voter engagement in both surveys go up for nonprofits serving underrepresented communities.

Philanthropy, through its words and actions, can either stifle or boost a nonprofit’s capacity and interest in engaging communities in voting and democracy. Throughout this toolkit, you’ll read examples and best practices from community and private foundations across the country on ways to support or activate local communities to conduct voter engagement.

Private and community foundations can use their resources to strengthen democracy and invest in voter engagement to support nonpartisan efforts that give voice to the communities they serve.

How This Toolkit Came
to Be

Throughout 2023, we interviewed a wide range of foundations that were taking unique and interesting steps to support and encourage voter engagement work among their grantees and respective networks. It was clear that a foundation need not be a democracy funder or even have a formal democracy program to invest in promoting a more inclusive democracy. The foundations we met with were big and small, private and community, urban and rural, providing a cross-section of the philanthropic sector.

Through this process, we identified a number of common strategies and best practices compiled within the toolkit. These include everything from hosting training for grantees to reviewing and updating grant language, and much more. Finally, we included full case studies that you can filter by type, mission focus, and strategy so you can find those most closely aligned to your own realities.

All of this work iterates on an earlier set of toolkits—one for community and one for private foundations—that Nonprofit VOTE released in 2018 in partnership with United Philanthropy Forum and Independent Sector. In updating the toolkits for 2024 and beyond, we aim to capture some of the changes that have taken place and additional lessons learned since the original toolkits were released.