At Spirit & Place, we find the statistics in the Indiana Civic Health Index shocking and sad. Hoosiers are last in the nation in voter turnout and are registered to vote in dismally low numbers. We rank 30th in the percent of residents who report contracting or visiting an elected official and 46th in public meeting attendance. The arguments on how we got here are varied. Some argue people’s busy schedules keep them away from the polls. Others blame the lack of civics education in schools or onerous voting requirements. A common refrain is that many voters simply do not feel their vote matters.
Regardless the reason, the outcome is the same: Our democracy’s health is in jeopardy.
Enter into this the belief by many nonprofit leaders that their organization will lose its nonprofit 501(c)3 status if it engages in voter registration drives or get-out-the-vote campaigns. Not true! As long as the activities remain nonpartisan – that is, as long as candidates and political parties are not endorsed or opposed – the IRS actually welcomes voter engagement work done by nonprofits.
We believe nonprofits – especially our peers in the arts and humanities – can and should play a special role in engaging voters and increasing civic participation.
It is hard to find a nonprofit that fails to mention “civic engagement” somewhere in its mission or vision statement, strategic plan, or goals and outcomes. But what does that phrase mean if we are not connecting those we serve to basic information about the importance of voting and how to vote?
Nonprofits exist to help create strong and vibrant communities. We are trusted and respected entities. We are rooted in our communities, connected to huge swaths of the public, and demonstrate a dedication to service on a daily basis.
Who better than Indiana’s nonprofits to encourage voter participation and to help create a culture of civic engagement?
During Indiana’s bicentennial, Spirit & Place feels it is imperative to reach out to our fellow nonprofit organizations and challenge them (and ourselves) to truly practice our civic engagement values through voter service activities.
Using tools created by NonprofitVOTE, Center for Civic Reflection, and the League of Women Voters, we’ve hosted a luncheon on civic engagement, offered “civic reflection training,” and even conducted two nonpartisan voter engagement workshops for nonprofit leaders and staff. We have committed ourselves to regularly communicating important (nonpartisan) election-related information to our audiences, staff, and board members. We want all those we serve to know we don’t care how they vote, but we want them to vote and will help as best we can when they have questions.
Through these efforts, our friends at Indiana Humanities, Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, Indiana Historical Society, Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, Big Car, Indiana Disability Rights, IndyHub and others have pledged to integrate nonpartisan voter engagement services into their work this summer and fall.
We believe the nonprofit community can move the needle on Indiana’s civic health in a positive direction by working together and welcome others to join us in this challenging yet vital endeavor.
Spirit & Place Festival Program Director