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How (and why!) nonprofits can Get Out the Vote

(Image: Liliana Bakhtiari)

Next election, I hope there are fewer text messages.

For so many of us in Georgia, the daily bombardment of political texts from unrecognized numbers started to get out of control near the end of 2020 – texts coming almost hourly from numbers we don’t recognize, from people who don’t know our community. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that these Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts are fruitless endeavors. Studies have shown that texting efforts may increase voter turnout by a margin of 2 to 4 percent. But is the “spray and pray” method really best?

I’m the managing director for Dad’s Garage Theatre in Atlanta, a nonprofit improv and scripted comedy theatre with a mission to bring joy and laughter to our community. Though we’ve been closed since March 13 due to COVID-19, we’ve been able to open our facility for vital community events: Recently, we served as a voting location for the presidential election and two runoffs. I’ve made it my goal to bring the skills and knowledge I’ve developed running a successful theatre to the democratic process. (I wrote this piece for Slate last year about how our theatre’s customer service-oriented mindset could help make the voting experience more enjoyable for all involved.)

After working three elections, I’ve learned a lot about how voting works. I’ve also seen that there is so much that nonprofits like ours can offer to help GOTV!

Of course, you don’t have to turn your facility into a voting location: Just by using your network and the trust of your community, you can get more people to the polls. Who is going to be more impactful in encouraging you to vote: a text from a stranger in another state, or someone you recognize from a local nonprofit?

Research has shown that the more personal a GOTV appeal is, the more likely it will be to move the needle. Turnout Nation is a GOTV organization that focuses on recruiting “captains” who reach out to ten people individually and help each one make their voting plan; their study shows that this “peer-to-peer” effort has moved the needle by a whooping 13.2 percent! (See sidebar for more statistics.)

I attended a call with one of the study’s authors and asked him how brands and influencers can get involved. Though they hadn’t researched it, they suspected we would have a similar effect, especially if we put recognizable people at the forefront of the campaign.




   The effectiveness of different
   Get Out the Vote methods, in terms
   of percentage increase in voter
   turnout, per Turnout Nation and
   this guide to GOTV research:

     • Peer to peer: 13.2%
     • Door to door canvassing: 9%
     • Phone banks: 3.8%
     • Texting: 3.1%
     • Direct mail: 1.8%
     • Yard signs: 1.7%
     • Robocalls: 0.16%

This made me realize nonprofit organizations are perfectly equipped to GOTV. Dad’s Garage has tremendous reach, especially because we appeal to a younger demographic and to new residents – Dad’s Garage is often a rite of passage for people who just moved to Atlanta, and the first arts organization they visit. To help get young people, new voters, new residents, and apathetic voters to the polls this election season, Dad’s Garage made sure to message our fans to let them know how important it is to vote, and how quick and easy it is to register. To make sure it felt authentic, we used our brand voice in all efforts; for instance, we talked about voting as a “civic doodie.” (Our fans love a poop joke.)

One more key advantage our organizations have in helping GOTV: Trust. We are trusted, quite simply, because we have an established relationship with the folks on our mailing list: They know who we are and what we stand for. Using Wolf Brown’s Audience Outlook Monitor to gauge audience attitudes towards reopening our theatre, we have learned from our patrons’ responses that they don’t fully trust government officials (especially regarding their messaging about the pandemic); however, they have a high degree of trust in individual arts organizations, theaters, and galleries to do the right thing regardless of politics.

I believe this trust is one of our biggest assets when it comes to GOTV. The name recognition of our organization, and the positive feelings it inspires (remembering the good times, when we used to go to the theatre!) help make our GOTV messages make a real impact.

This past year has certainly shown us the power of engaged citizens. If we want to overcome voter apathy, perhaps we should start by overcoming institutional apathy. It’s vital that the organizations we know, love, and trust remind us of the importance of voting. And that’s why Dad’s Garage Theatre, known for comedy, also included serious GOTV information in our newsletters. My hope is that with each coming election – national, state, and local – we see more nonprofits reminding their stakeholders how important it is to vote.

Lara Smith is managing director at Dad's Garage Theatre.

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