Chronicles of Philanthropy: Coronavirus Exposes Gaps in Digital Voter Mobilization
By Alex Daniels
The Chronicle of Philanthropy – July 21, 2020
The presidential primary was supposed to be a proving ground for the New Florida Majority Education Fund’s push to register voters for the November elections.
The group, which educates and mobilizers Black and Latino voters, had plans to knock on thousands of doors to talk with Florida residents about climate change, criminal justice, and other issues. It planned to deploy hundreds of canvassers to register people to vote. The primary offered a chance to identify problems that could be addressed ahead of the general election.
But like hundreds of other nonprofits that had ambitious plans to register voters in person during the 2020 election cycle, the Florida group had to put its plans on hold as the Covid-19 crisis made face-to-face contact too much of a health danger to pursue.
Now it and many other nonprofits are turning to digital-only efforts,
That change has exposed a deep fissure among nonprofits and foundations that focus on registering voters and encouraging them to go to the polls: Some have long believed that in-person efforts are most effective and haven’t invested in digital efforts, so those groups need a technology boost. Others decided well before the pandemic that online recruitment and registration were wise to pursue, and they worry that some nonprofits and donors new to digital organizing don’t understand what it takes to succeed online.
And as it has become increasingly clear that people across America will need to stay physically distant through much of the fall election cycle, nonprofits and foundations on both sides of this divide are reassessing how best to navigate the challenges.
Way to Rise — a collaboration of donors that want to channel more money to the New Florida group and dozens of other nonprofits nationwide that have had to shift gears — has already identified a $60 million funding gap among organizations that seek to engage people of color in the voting process. It last month urged foundations
to support organizations working on digital voter registration and vote-by-mail efforts.
Many election observers predicted that a tide of new voters would result in high voter-participation rates this year. According to a study of 13 states by the Center for Election Innovation and Research, high voter registrations in January supported the idea that 2020 would be a “wave” election. But registration rates plummeted in April in each of the states studied, coming in at much lower totals than at the same point during the last presidential race, according to the group’s most recent data.
That drop in registration, along with the disproportionate pain Covid-19 has inflicted on people of color, is a key reason nonprofits are seeking more grant money to ensure that people vote in the fall, says Nicole Boucher, a senior adviser to Way to Rise, which is the 501(c)(3) arm of Way to Win, a progressive donor collective.
“This is a five-alarm fire,” says Boucher, whose group is supported by the Amalgamated, Ford, Open Society, Nathan Cummings, and Weissberg foundations.
Working the Phones
New Florida has seen the funding troubles that can come from switching gears to a more digital focus.
Once it realized in-person canvassing was not an option, it asked its volunteers to serve as “social-media ambassadors” and send out text messages to people on New Florida’s contact list. Instead of precinct walking, the group’s volunteers are working the phones.
Usually about 30 people a month volunteer to work at the phone banks New Florida runs while 200 people are out canvassing. Since the coronavirus struck, more than 200 volunteers working the phones from home have surveyed 40,000 potential voters and called 1 million residents in the first two months of the pandemic, a call volume that is more comparable to the months right before a general election.
The group joined a lawsuit to force the state to expand vote-by-mail. And instead of organizing marches and rallies to call voter attention to key issues that candidates on the November ballot will need to tackle, the group has had to innovate. In May, New Florida put together mock funeral processions where protesters stayed in their cars to honor people who have died of Covid-19 and to press Florida’s governor, Rick DeSantis, to expand unemployment benefits.
But Andrea Mercado, the group’s executive director, says that some grant makers got queasy about the move to so much online voter education and recruitment.
“The donor response has been uneven,” she says. “While some donors have really gone above and beyond to support their grantees and organizations that they partner with, others have held back and put additional stress on organizations looking to meet this political moment.”
In March, New Florida was on the verge of losing support from one of its donors when Ford, Open Society Foundations, and Way to Rise stepped in to provide additional funds to bridge a budget gap. Mercado says the donor, which she would not name, eventually came through, but she declined to comment further.
Ethan Frey, program officer for city and states at Ford, also declines to go into details. Some foundations, he says, base their funding on “heavy-handed, short-term deliverables” related to voter registration. With the onset of the pandemic, money spent pivoting to a digital strategy might not have been seen as a wise prospect, he says.
‘Built for This Moment’
While some organizations are struggling, others that were created specifically to use the internet to rally support for causes feel like they are in their element.
One of those digital natives is Voto Latino.
“We were built for this moment,” says Maria Teresa Kumar, the group’s chief executive.
Over the past seven years, Voto Latino has received $2.8 million from the MacArthur Foundation. In March, Michael Bloomberg gave the nonprofit $500,000. The group introduced an app called “VoterPal” that encourages people to get their friends to register to vote in 2018. It has been testing its messaging and evaluating its network since September, which has helped it register more than 150,000 people to vote during this election cycle.
The key is to build a sense of belonging online. How do we build a church basement online?Kumar says the increase in demand is a result of 15 years of work establishing Voto Latino as a trusted online meeting site where young Latino voters can share information on political and cultural issues.
“It makes me nervous when people say we are just going to move everything online,” she says. “It’s not easy. It takes a lot of upfront investment.”
Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, agrees. It took years, lots of successful campaigns, and a lot of expertise to establish the trust that is needed to attract 1.7 million members. Those members log on to the site to watch video interviews and read online articles. They all get email calls to action.
Robinson worries that many organizing groups have been bombarded by technology-company pitches that promise to increase their digital reach and broadcast to a wider audience. What’s more important, he says, is establishing a good relationship with people online, so that a digital presence can motivate people to act.
“If your end goal is growth, and not winning, you’ll quickly go away,” he says.
What Works Online
As organizations seek to encourage people to vote and get involved in other aspects of civic affairs, they should treat the digital realm like real life, says Mariana Ruiz Firmat, executive director of the Kairos Fellowship, an organization that promotes leadership development and technology skills for social-movement organizers of color.
She explains that it is more important to build strong relationships online than it is to collect a huge list of contacts. Interactions and conversations online should try to mimic a get-together in a church basement, where a lot of organizing groups meet in real life.
“The key is to build a sense of belonging online,” she says. “How do we build a church basement online?”
To help nonprofits find an answer, Ruiz Firmat created a hotline for organizations making the switch to digital as the coronavirus hit to receive coaching. About 60 groups have responded.
Ruiz Firmat says nonprofits should focus more energy on figuring out messages that attract people to come together online than worrying about the technology they use to accomplish that goal.
“You actually don’t need a bunch of digital tools in order to build a digital program. You don’t need anything new or fancy,” she says.
Gaining a Digital Footing
Voces de la Frontera is a Milwaukee nonprofit that meets with immigrants throughout the state to encourage them to get more involved in the political process. About 90 percent of the nonprofit’s work is face-to-face, much of it powered by volunteers, says Fabi Maldonado, the group’s political director.
Immediately after Covid-19 started to spread, Voces de la Frontera, pivoted from voter education to providing cash relief directly to undocumented workers in its network. Maldonado says Voces raised about $70,000 in the first month of the pandemic.
Since then, it has tried to gain its footing in digital organizing so it can resume its voter education. Because a lot of the people that Voces is attempting to reach don’t have high-speed internet, contacting them online can be a challenge. For many, Maldonado says, a Zoom meeting isn’t an option.
The nonprofit is focusing its efforts on getting its volunteers and members trained to send messages by video or texts since that is easier for people to view on their smartphones or other devices.
“We’re willing to walk them through step by step,” he says. “We need to have a lot of patience, but we have to invest that time in our community if we want to move forward.”