A Model for Effective Civic Engagement: Service-provider Agencies in Underrepresented Communities

Executive Summary

Traditional candidate and political party campaigns typically engage frequent voters who are reliable and easy to reach. These campaigns do not, however, conduct extensive outreach campaigns to underrepresented communities—in particular Latino and immigrant communities. New interventions by institutions outside the traditional electoral process are necessary in order for underrepresented communities to achieve significant gains in voting participation, build political power and become fully integrated in the civic process.

Nonprofit service-provider agencies (SPAs) represent a new model for civic engagement, one that aims to expand the electorate and develop a more engaged community by targeting the hardest to reach, least represented populations—breaking the traditional model of civic engagement. These agencies are locally based and interact with clients on a regular basis, offering an underutilized vehicle to engage low-income clients, people of color, young people and new citizens into the democratic process. SPAs are able to efficiently and cost-effectively integrate civic engagement activities into their existing operations. Housed within these multi-issue, multi- service institutions, civic engagement takes on a larger meaning. It becomes more than a voter registration and mobilization drive for three months every four years—it is about learning the roles and responsibilities of your elected officials, voting in local elections, attending a city council meeting, getting involved in the issues you care about and helping your friends or family register to vote.

During the 2008 election cycle, Crossroads Campaigns Solutions (Crossroads) worked extensively with the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) on its Latino Empowerment and Advocacy Project (LEAP), a national civic engagement network comprised of community-based organizations, primarily SPAs. Crossroads, with extensive experience in partisan electoral field operations, had its first experience working with SPAs on nonpartisan civic participation campaigns that encompassed voter registration, voter education, Get-Out-the-Vote (GOTV) and media activities.

Based on the uneven performance of SPAs in other civic engagement efforts, and the conventional wisdom that the model is not effective, Crossroads had moderate expectations for the groups’ success. However, by infusing best practices of partisan electoral field efforts into the SPA civic engagement effort, 70% of the 28 organizations in the LEAP Network reached or surpassed their voter registration goals. Many organizations ran sophisticated GOTV operations that targeted 2-10 times more voters than those they registered to vote./

Through this paper, Crossroads aims to present the story of the LEAP Network and its successes, as well as a broad rationale for the unique and effective role that SPAs can play in the field of civic participation.

Service-providers: Looking at Their Untapped Potential
(See pages 3-5)

In addition to the institutions, campaigns and candidates investing resources in the field of civic and voter participation, nonpartisan SPAs can be a key ingredient to increasing civic participation, even if they appear to offer a low return on investment.

The key to SPAs’ successes lies in the fact that this investment actually goes much further than it would in other institutions. Due to their community credibility, cost-effective organizational structure and long-term sustainability, SPAs provide an unmatched potential for successfully accessing and engaging Latino and New American communities.

Community Credibility and Access

  • SPAs maintain a high level of trust with the communities they serve
  • The nonpartisan nature of SPAs provides a credible foundation from which to engage their clients. Documentation has shown that underrepresented communities – Latinos and immigrants, in particular – trust messages that come from local community based organizations.
  • SPAs do not have to go out into the community to look for new voters to register; instead, they have people coming to them on a daily basis.
  • Beyond the clients they see every day, SPAs and staff have a very deep reach into the community. There is a multiplier effect of families, friends, and neighbors that are, in some way, touched by the work of these service agencies.

Cost-Effective Structure and Operations

  • SPAs have several infrastructural advantages for civic engagement work. Many have physical resources– buildings, phones, computers, staff and an available volunteer base. Civic engagement funding can be used more for programming than for these overhead costs.
  • Integrating civic engagement into everyday operations creates a higher level of sustainability and potential for success. SPAs can run a consistent, low volume operation, which sustained over time has the potential for achieving high numbers of client registrations.
  • SPAs not only have physical resources but they already have administrative processes and reporting mechanisms for grants in place that can be easily used for voter registration and GOTV operations.

Long-Term Sustainability

  • SPAs have the potential to be permanent conduits for voter registration, issue education, and mobilization within their communities since these organizations do not run on election cycles,
  • SPAs are vehicles for cultivating staff and client leadership development that in turn strengthens their institutions and the broader community.

Obstacles to Realizing a Service-provider’s Potential
(see Pages 5-8)

In working with SPAs, there are several realities and obstacles that must be addressed in order to ensure success with this model. No matter their size, location, or type of services offered, all agencies face similar potential challenges.

Lack of Ongoing Funding

  • As with many civic engagement efforts, funding that flows in only during election cycles presents a huge challenge for organizations that are trying to build an ongoing, sustainable civic participation strategy. Short funding periods mean that organizations are always starting from scratch and ramping up activities in election years, which can be cumbersome and inefficient.

Organizational Staffing and Structure

  • In order to operate a successful civic engagement program, an institution must have buy-in from all levels – the board of directors, the executive director, senior management, the civic engagement program lead and other staff.

Volunteer Recruitment and Management

  • Most SPAs do not necessarily actively engage in volunteer recruitment; however, many SPAs have access to volunteers through their client base and community outreach activities. They may lack a system for training and tracking volunteers and often do not allocate resources such as assigning staff to focus on the recruitment and retention of volunteers.

Individualized Planning

  • No two organizations are alike; there is great variation in the size of staff, type of services offered and needs/challenges of the community served. Tracking and Standards for Accountability
  • It is common to encounter SPAs that have experience in registering voters, but because they do not always track those individuals, they cannot engage those clients in ongoing civic participation efforts and disburse critical election-related information to them or utilize them in advocacy campaigns.

Lack of Technical Support

  • For many service-providers, who have limited experience in running civic participation campaigns, the need for extensive technical assistance and support is significant. The one-on-one technical support is invaluable to these SPAs, particularly because the vocabulary, process and methods of civic engagement are all new.

(see Pages 14-15)

For GOTV operations, SPAs have unique tools and resources at their disposal. They have an existing infrastructure—phones, computers and staff—that do not need to be ramped up every election cycle. Most traditional organizations, both partisan and nonpartisan, invest significant time and money in ramping up for their election activities. Their staff capacity also relies heavily on the amount of funding they receive, but SPAs already know what their capacity will be. However, while SPAs have existing structures and resources, they must learn how to run an effective GOTV program. This will take resources such as staff time and money to pay for voter contact treatment programs.

(see Pages 17-18)

  • SPAs have demonstrated the capacity and willingness to significantly contribute to civic engagement in underrepresented communities.
  • There is real potential for SPAs to impact issues that affect underrepresented individuals at the most local level.
  • Crossroads has worked with dozens of SPAs, and seen the potential that they have to meet goals and change the traditional civic engagement landscape for the advancement of progressive issues.