Voter Engagement Can’t Be One-and-Done | Voter Empowerment Project

Interview with Dave Chandrasekaran, Co-founder and Executive Director of the Voter Empowerment Project. VEP leverages skilled volunteers to help front-line community-based organizations that work on voter engagement. Dave shares how they engage volunteers to support communities over time rather than just every 2 years. 

Learn how trust was built with CBO’s over time and how skill-based volunteering is creating amazing impact. 

The Voter Empowerment Project (VEP) is a grassroots initiative that launched in November 2019 and mobilizes individuals to support voter turnout in high-need areas. VEP’s network of volunteer professionals provides remote technical assistance to small, high-impact, front-line organizations that mobilize voters in historically disadvantaged communities.

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:00] We have a very timely guest on with the midterms coming up. We reached out to the voter empowerment project, voter empowerment.org, voter empowerment.org, and we found none other then the co-founder and executive director Dave Chandresakaran to join us on the podcast.

[00:00:46] Dave, how is it? It’s going great, George.

[00:00:48] Thanks so much for having me on.

[00:00:51] Well, I could imagine, I don’t know, a million other things that you are racing to do as we approach such a important time in American Politic, but I maybe we could start with your story. How did, how did this begin? I, I know 2019 was the year, but maybe you

[00:01:08] can bring us back.

[00:01:09] Sure. Our founding was back in 2019, but it really was inspired by some experiences several of us had in 2016. And I, along with many of my colleagues who are here based in the DC area, we like to every election cycle go knock on doors and go phone bank, and we try to recruit as many of our friends and colleagues to come and do the.

[00:01:30] And so in 2016, many of us were in Pennsylvania. And on, on one day I was in South Philadelphia knocking on some doors, predominantly African-American neighborhood. And there was an older black gentleman who answered the door in one case and had no interest in voting. And he explained that was because quote, you people come here every four years, you yell at us to go vote and you leave because you don’t give a damn.

[00:01:52] That’s something that when I tell that story, often everyone in the room nods their head. They’ve all experienced that when they’re doing election related work. But I think the problem was as I spoke to some of my colleagues in the campaign sector, they said, You know, that’s what happens. You talk to 10 million voters and you upset 2 million of ’em.

[00:02:07] It’s just collateral damage. And I think as we experience what happened to people, especially communities of color after the 2016 election and for the years afterwards, a lot of people were absolutely suffering, especially people of color. And when we approached 2020, I really didn’t wanna perpetuate that situation of having out of towners, parachute into black and brown neighborhoods and just tell them what to do and then leave.

[00:02:31] And so we really, were brainstorming in 2019, how can we still activate volunteers from around the country, but do so in a way that’s more respectful, that’s gonna have, you know, meaningful impact and really values the communities we’re talking to. And so we recognize that. Hundreds or thousands of really small, amazing non-profits out there that are doing this work.

[00:02:52] And they do it year round and they’re based in the community. They reflect the community. They work not just on elections or voter empower, empowerment or civics. They also work on housing and healthcare and education and criminal justice reform. So they just have far more trust in their communities, but a lot of them are under.

[00:03:10] And so we thought, why don’t we find volunteers from around the country, all of whom are just really smart and have a lot of skills, and let’s go to these fall nonprofits and let’s say, Hey, if you have access to our network of just really smart people, what could we do for you? And so that morphed into this model where we kind of became a pro bono consulting firm for small organizations that were at the front lines of helping get out.

[00:03:32] That’s

[00:03:32] so interesting cuz you hear this, You know, you people come here every four years and tell us to go vote. It’s like there’s this giant voter apparatus, this amazing engine that gets revved up with the order of billions of dollars and then disappears, vanishes overnight. and it in one way makes complete sense.

[00:03:55] It, it seems like there’s just like a lack of feedback loops because I imagine the other side of the narrative, the people that are working for progressive change in these neighborhoods say, Well, well, well, yeah, well, we’re going to do the work. Didn’t you see that, this or that, or the things that happen, How do you view the, the underlying problem here?

[00:04:12] I’ve labeled it as a feedback loop, but clearly that’s over.

[00:04:15] Sure. So if you think of the sort of electoral industrial complex, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry that pops up every two years, every four. I recognize that for better, for worse, that’s how our electoral system works. It’s donors going to campaigns to political action committees, and then hundreds of millions of dollars spent mostly on advertising, on networks and digital space.

[00:04:37] And the whole goal is either to persuade people to vote for your candidate or to eventually get them to come out to vote. And that’s not gonna change any time soon. But for those of us who want to participate in a way that’s maybe. We have built our model recognizing that there’s amazing groups who do this work, who can help build trust among folks who are disenfranchised, who’ve really been left behind and can earn their trust.

[00:05:00] When we then go and say, Hey, we’d love for you to register to vote. If you aren’t, or we know you’re registered, we’d love for you to go and exercise your right to vote. And what can we do to help you if there’s barriers because of voter suppression laws, because of the difficulty in finding your polling place because you move.

[00:05:14] and I wish there was more emphasis on that to the larger, broader industry that’s working on elections to realize that investing in these groups and doing so not just every two years or four years, but year round, that really helps a lot of these groups report that’s funding comes, you know, the summer before an election.

[00:05:30] There’s all this beltway influence on them of what they need to do with strings attached to the funding and then it disappear. So they hire people and then have to fire people and then find new ones again. And then, you know, and one thing I’m very thankful of is that a lot of the philanthropic community who cares about civic engagement and democracy have really moved more to this longer term investment in these kinds of organizations, multi-year grants that are big enough that they can hire and train quality staff, that they can use some of that money to invest in the community through outreach and events.

[00:06:01] And I think that is having an. But I’ll be honest, as you know, the rise in voter suppression in many states around the country is making the task of helping people vote all the more difficult, You know, dozens of laws have been passed in, in many, many states that are specifically targeted at help, making it harder to vote, especially for people of color and other disfranchised communities.

[00:06:21] So I do hope that the larger industry that cares about voting rights will really look at how we invest that. and the support, not just episodically, but year round over the long term, and helping these groups really expand their impact over time.

[00:06:37] I do wanna get more into how you are working with volunteers, training them, placing them, connecting them.

[00:06:44] But I’m also curious because there’s a sizeable voter engagement and, you know, midterm circus going on right now. I know you’re focused on the overall, like how do we build over time, But I have you in this moment. What is top of mind for you right now? What are you looking for as we roll into what’s gonna be a very noisy week

[00:07:05] politically?

[00:07:06]

[00:07:06] Our model has two. One is helping amazing small, high-impact organizations working at the state and local level who are mobilizing communities of color and rural Americans and returning citizens and first time voters and young people, and we want to really help them expand their impact.

[00:07:24] The second objective though, is activating more people in civic engagement, and so we really prioritize creating volunteer opportunities that are more accessible and meaningful and engaging. For people who otherwise wouldn’t get involved. And in fact, in our first year of operations, over 80% had only participated in less than three campaign cycles.

[00:07:46] 40% had never been involved. So we see that as our mission in addition to helping frontline work. And where that really comes in this year though, is what many people are noticing traditionally in midterm election. The enthusiasm among voters and the enthusiasm among volunteers and the enthusiasm among donors is just significantly lower than presidential years.

[00:08:07] And I can honestly say that 2020 probably had the most attention compared to, you know, decades of elections. And I think we all understand why it was a very intense election. There was very vitriolic. But that really has had an impact on us when we’re trying to find more people to participate as volunteers.

[00:08:21] It was much more difficult this year compared to 20. So that was huge lessons in what we need to do in a year on fact function of engaging volunteers, building opportunities that will keep them involved, keep them enthusiastic and make sure that they’re available to support these groups in a year round fashion.

[00:08:38] Since that’s the one, one of the most important things, I think we’re seeing that the vitriol and, and devices and politics is not going, not going away anytime soon. And that certainly motivates some people. But there was a lot of people who were volunteers with us and a lot of the groups we. They just really care about helping people get out to vote.

[00:08:54] It doesn’t matter whether you’re liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter, you know, where the voter is in the country. Everyone should be able to exercise their right to vote, especially those who’ve been disenfranchised. And I think that’s been a huge selling point to a lot of the volunteers that we talk to, rather than door knocking or phone banking and talking to strangers on the phone.

[00:09:11] And, you know, that’s a very difficult circumstance difficult activity, and frankly, not everyone’s good at. . But instead of that they can use their existing skills helping really amazing frontline groups and the staff they get to interact with. It’s, it’s just a much more pleasant experience. And so we certainly hope despite lower enthusiasm in these quote unquote off years, we wanna figure out how we can grow our impact in recruiting volunteers so that we’re delivering for the groups that we’re helping.

[00:09:33] That makes sense. And so, Maybe you could say a bit more about, I think on a macro level, I will also say that we’ve seen a, a decrease in, in volunteers. There are, you know, big picture things like employment levels after effects of covid involved in this, as well as inflation costs of gas for transport.

[00:09:54] That volunteering in general seems to be on a bit of a decline. What is your hope though, when you recruit volunteers at this time of year? There’s a sudden surge, albeit much lower than our every four year. This is an off cycle. What is your hope though, in, in raising the, the visibility of the voter empowerment project, in front of volunteers?

[00:10:18] I guess at this

[00:10:19] moment

[00:10:19] we are very much interested next year and focusing on understanding what motivates people to volunteer, what excites them about it, and what can we do. To earn their participation. So for example, we’re really broadening our investment in professional development. So we recruit volunteers. The youngest was 14 in 2020.

[00:10:40] The oldest was much, much older. They are anywhere from students in high school and college to early career professionals, to executives, to retirees. But especially for the younger volunteers, we know that there’s a way we can help them develop. Help them find mentors, help them as they advance in their careers or in their education.

[00:10:58] And so we really wanna highlight that. We wanna develop that more formally so that when we approach, you know, the masses we wanna recruit to volunteer, we can say this is something that you benefit from as well. So that it doesn’t rely on people’s political motivation or the intensity of an election cycle.

[00:11:11] It’s just an opportunity that they see that’s meaningful to them. We also want to convey that volunteering to help other people vote. Perhaps it’s just something everyone should. For those of us who have an easier time to vote, maybe that’s a way of giving back the way. Volunteering at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving, or helping to mentor young people in your nearby schools.

[00:11:31] Those are things that many of us have done over the years. This is something we all should just do and everyone can do it whenever you have time using your existing skills. We really believe that it doesn’t matter what skills you have. Maybe you have graphic design, social media skills, data analysis.

[00:11:44] We need a lot of. But also just people who are really good at Googling information or really good at just writing and building information putting up to da the documents calling volunteers of a small nonprofit and getting them to come out to volunteer. There’s a lot of ways people can help and, and it, so we’re gonna spend a lot of time next year figuring out both what to offer and then how to take that message out to the public when we recruit volunteers.

[00:12:07] Yeah, it’s a couple steps removed, I imagine, on off cycle years and timing. It is. Potentially tough to connect that, that impact, right? A volunteer who hands out and creates, you know, impact in a soup kitchen is very different than someone who builds capacity in a frontline voter empowerment organization on the ground somewhere doing, you know, as you mentioned, data analysis or marketing, pr, communications, research.

[00:12:38] You know, you’re helping the people who are helping the people who are then going to vote. How, you know, are these times of year, maybe I’m getting into more specifically here, are these times of year easier because voting and the importance of voting is top of mind for recruiting volunteers? Or is it just so noisy that it is other sort of more, we’ll say soup kitchen focused direct service on the ground, smile and dial types of volunteering that that overtake these.

[00:13:07] The first thing I’ll say is we really wanna say there’s no such thing as an off year. That voting is a thing we should think about always, regardless of whether it’s midterm or presidential election. And in fact, in many places, your state or your local municipal government will have elections in odd numbered years.

[00:13:25] And there’s many elections that happen. Some happen early in the year even. And so we want. Both voters understand the importance of coming out to vote, but also volunteers understanding the importance to volunteer throughout the year, throughout different cycles. And we recognize though that, that the larger narrative around what’s happening, presidential election, you know, Democrats are Republicans, that’s probably gonna motivate most people, but we really think that there were a lot of volunteers in 2020 who wanted to get involved, didn’t know how, and once they did, they were really eager to come.

[00:13:56] Our post activity survey in 2021 showed that 97% were interested in volunteering again, and 86% said that they just had a deeper understanding of issues around voter disenfranchisement. And over 60% said that really helped them understand issues around racial injustice. And so we hope that once folks get in the door and they participate once that, they’ll really come back.

[00:14:18] And we have seen that. But you’re right, there’s, there’s, nothing’s gonna make it easy to build enthusiasm at a time. People have been overwhelmed and traumatized by the pandemic and by other issues and political vitriol and criminal justice reform issues. So we wanna also be empathetic to that.

[00:14:33] Our big motto is that those who want to help, here’s an opportunity for one way you can. And there’s many, many ways you can help, whether it’s in voting or other ways. We just wanna create a very attractive one for the people that it’ll benefit and who who would like to, to get involved. And so that’s really on us to make that volunteer opportunity attractive.

[00:14:51] And one of the things the volunteers really said, they appreciated volunteering in a nonpartisan way. They appreciated working with these frontline groups, most of whom are led by staff of color, who were just genuinely amazing people. And some of our volunteers built really great relationships with the staff of those groups on the ground, even if they lived a thousand miles away.

[00:15:10] Some of them joined the boards of these organizations. Some of them became direct volunteers for these organizations. Some of them became donors. So I really think that experience is one that makes it worthwhile and we hope to really amplify that message by saying, Here’s this great opportunity not just to help the public, but really to help you as well.

[00:15:26] I really

[00:15:27] am interested in how you’re crafting this volunteer experience. Clearly based on the, you know, exit polling, , the surveying that you’re doing of volunteers that are, are part of. It is working. How many volunteers have gone through this process? Can you gimme an idea of some of the numbers and then as much as you can, Like what kind of impact can you tell these volunteers are having given the wide range of services that these volunteers are then providing to frontline

[00:15:56] organizations?

[00:15:58] Since the start of 2019 when we launched, we’ve had, you know, close to 500 people sign up, interested in volunteering. About a half of them eventually ended up participating, getting onboarded, getting involved in a project. But I’d say about 180 or so have been like really active in doing, in delivering services.

[00:16:15] And we certainly hope in the future to double or triple that number once we expand our capacity. We know. For most volunteers, it’s really hard to balance their work commitments and other things going on in their lives during a pandemic childcare, a lot of you know a lot, and that’s why we allow volunteers to volunteer when you have time.

[00:16:36] Do you have a couple hours this week? Great. If that’s, if there’s a project that needs someone to help edit a newsletter and you have time to do it, great. Do it. And then if you’re busy for a month, that’s okay. And when you’re free again, come back and we’ll offer what other projects are. We also want to make sure that the groups we’re helping are able to receive our help without adding burden to them.

[00:16:54] And that’s why one of the most important things we do is we manage the delivery of services. A lot of groups match people, They match volunteers to organizations, and I think that model absolutely works as well. But we wanted to be careful because. We didn’t want the organizations to have to have an additional thing or additional person to have to oversee.

[00:17:12] So we just get the info from an organization. Let’s say they wanna update their website, They want new information on their civic engagement page. They just don’t have time to research it. They don’t have time to upload it. We’ll find a volunteer who can do the research. We’ll find a volunteer who can then take that information and write copy to go on the website.

[00:17:26] And then we’ll find a website expert who can then take it and put it up online, maybe a graphic design volunteer. We’ll create some great graphics with it and add it to that webpage. And so, you know, multiple people are working on a. And we can get this done in maybe a week. And if folks want to go out and hire people, if they had the funds that could take, you know, three weeks just to sign the contract and then months of meetings, and then maybe it’s update.

[00:17:47] So we really value our rapid response process to help these groups who are in need, who just don’t have the time or capacity to do it in house. This is such an

[00:17:57] important point, and I’m really happy that we’re turning towards it because I think there’s this myth. All you have to do is point a volunteer at a nonprofit and boom, good things happen.

[00:18:08] Ignoring the amount, the amazing amount of project management, organizing, messaging, and generally corralling of volunteers to have an actual workable product created. Maybe you can dig a little bit deeper into how this actually works, because it sounds like you are effectively running an agency. That is leveraging volunteers to have finite

[00:18:36] deliverables

[00:18:37] that can be relied on by these organizations.

[00:18:42] Like, What, This sounds like a PM circus. What is going on? How are you doing

[00:18:46] this? So we often describe ourselves as a pro bono consulting forum for small, under-resourced voting rights organizations at the front lines of voter engage. But I think that sounds a little corporate. So we really consider ourselves an organization that gives free technical assistance in a way that is tailored to what an organization drives is their needs.

[00:19:08] But you’re right, managing all of the different projects is an enormous hercule effort, and it’s not insignificant. And that’s one of the reasons we’re really, you know, aggressively trying to raise more money from foundations, from donors, so that we can hire more staff. It really just comes down to. Good people who are organized, who can help recruit volunteers, who can help identify the great frontline groups that are doing voter engagement, and then who can help assign the volunteers of the work.

[00:19:34] But the most important is following up and making sure the services get delivered, especially since volunteers are donating their time. It’s not like their staff, It’s not like you have that ability to sort of really just directly have that authority to sort of order them to get certain things done.

[00:19:47] You’re really asking for. , which is why we are very supportive in helping. Any time a volunteer needs help or needs information from the organization, we can help facilitate that if needed. Anytime the organization feels like a volunteer maybe isn’t responding we’ll step in and figure out what’s going on and just wanna make sure that soup to nuts, everything gets done.

[00:20:06] And that’s our really we pride ourselves in delivering things on time and in a satisfactory fashion. In a way that’s equal to or better than what a private sector consulting firm would do because these groups deserve that. They don’t deserve second tier service.

[00:20:21] We were talking with the podcast r i p, medical debt and how they turn $1 into a hundred dollars of leverage to alleviate medical debt.

[00:20:30] I see for voter empowerment dot. That you actually can, can claim that you are getting a three to one, right? You’re getting matched on your generous founders, which is awesome. Can you explain maybe, is there a leverage where I donate $1 to essentially your amazing project managers there who are organizing all of these volunteers and these hours, Like what type of leverage do you see happening with dollars put into the organiz?

[00:21:02] Yep. I appreciate you bringing up our current fall fundraising campaign. Our, one of our board members has generously agreed to put up $10,000 in matching funds. She’s gonna donate $200 for every donor who contributes this fall, and so we’re very excited to be able to expand our impact by securing more funds that can both help us, you know, invest in hiring more staff, but also in different projects like our professional development program.

[00:21:31] That’s gonna help create opportunities for skills training and mentorship for our volunteers as well as for staff at the partners, because a lot of our frontline partners said we really would love more professional development opportunities, but we also wanna see how we can leverage getting more financial and other types of resources to our frontline partners.

[00:21:48] And so, for example, in 2020, We recognized that a lot of our organization partners had never had voter file data before to help them target their messaging, target, their outreach, door knocking, et cetera. So we said, How can we help you access voter file data? And so we found some opportunities where they existed that were actually pretty affordable, but they didn’t have it in their budget.

[00:22:07] So we were able to raise a bit of money from some donors to pay for that voter. But then we realized we have this voter file data. Well now you need to use text banking tools and phone banking tools, et cetera. And some of them didn’t have that. And so we said, Okay, why don’t for, you know, for the next three months, we’ll pay for those services for you so you can get it off the ground.

[00:22:24] And then a lot of them had never done paid advertising on social media before, which is another key way to reach certain demographics. And so again, we were able to raise a bit of money to help them fund their digital marketing campaigns that we ran through volunteers, but we needed that tiny bit of money to help it get out the door.

[00:22:40] So that’s another area where we’re willing wanna expand our project to help support these organizations. And donor and foundation support is gonna be critical to.

[00:22:48] Yeah, there’s a lot of leverage happening here. I, I don’t know if it’s even possible to say like, Oh, we do this many projects. This is the average size, this is the average output, or however it would come across.

[00:22:59] But this is a leverage play very clearly, where you are able to create the, the tool, get access to the data, and then. Offer it to organizations that need it the most, on the front line and also, you know, it seems like provide funding to them on occasion as well.

[00:23:16] Yeah, we’ve executed several hundred projects for the organizations and from a wide range.

[00:23:21] It could be revamping or redoing many of their websites and no critique to non-profits. But our websites are not known for being cutting edge . And we were fortunate enough to have several computer science students who then became graduates from Stanford, who were just amazing at this stuff. And we also created, you know, 50 to a hundred pieces of individual social media content, graphics, cap.

[00:23:43] That were plug and play for several organizations based on topics they described, or we analyzed voter file data for them to help them create targets of who they should go doorknob to, who they should phone bank based on the demographics and the zip codes that they wanted to focus on. Or we actually helped some groups figure out how to do volunteer recruitment better, so it could be anywhere from as simple as updating their volunteer signup form on their website to collect the information they need to better use their volunteers.

[00:24:10] To researching what are some great student groups in your area? Or if you need, say, volunteers who speak Korean or Vietnamese, let’s find some networks of people who speak that. And then we would actually engage those organizations to recruit those volunteers to the frontline partners. So the projects were, were really diverse.

[00:24:25] And some would take an hour or three hours. Some would take, you know, once a week for, for three months to help execute. And it just, A broad range of ways. We help organizations and the, and create them in a way that volunteers who have different time, different skill sets and different interests can really plug in wherever they want.

[00:24:42] Yeah. This

[00:24:43] is, this is great. I’m, I feel like I’m being sold to become a volunteer. I’m like, Oh, I know how to do that. I could do that. I could, I know how this would work. Talk me through. I’d go, I would sign up on the form and then I’m contacted. I imagine I’m vetted to some extent. What would my experience be?

[00:25:00] And I guess maybe it also depends on the time of year, because right now, let’s just be honest, , you’re volunteering to like work for the next week. This is not the, you know, maybe the right flow, but big picture, if you care about voter engagement, it seems like a great use of, of energy and skill. So walk me through what that, you know, onboarding, What does it feel

[00:25:20] like?

[00:25:20] What does it look. Well first off, George, I absolutely would like to recruit you to come volunteer, and I know several groups have been interested in launching podcasts. Your expertise would be very, very well received. Oh, yikes. . So, in terms of the process you know, if you find our website, voter empowerment.org, you know, you can click there to sign up to volunteer, and.

[00:25:40] You know, you’ll, we’ll reach out to you pretty quickly and just say Thank you for volunteering. The signup form includes an opportunity for you to list what are the different skills you might have. It might be creative, like graphic design or social media or writing. It might be technical, like web design or data analysis.

[00:25:56] Or computer programming, or it might be sort of logistics, an administration, like helping to recruit volunteers or helping with backend HR operations. and we’ll, we’ll onboard volunteers just to give an overview of what the experience is like and we really get a sense of, well, what kind of time, you know, do you have now over time, over the year?

[00:26:16] And then we can add you to our list of volunteers based on the skill set you said you have. And as we approach organizations throughout the year and they share with us, Hey, right now I really need someone to help me draft some new social media content, we’ll reach out to anyone who said they had social media expertise and say, Is anyone available to help this amazing.

[00:26:33] Asian Pacific Islander Outreach Group in Arizona or in North Carolina create some new social media content targeting youth from API backgrounds. . And so we see which volunteer might have both the skill set, but also the sort of experience in those communities that can help volunteer. And then we’ll, we’ll, you know, ma link the organization and the volunteer and we’ll oversee the process, provide them with any information and support and check in as they, you know, create the social media content.

[00:26:59] We’ll make sure it meets the needs of the partner, ultimately leading to creating, you know, a Google Drive full of content that the organization can, can use. And once that volunteer’s completed, you know, we like to check in and see how things. and then the volunteers sort of able to come back whenever they, they are interested or if they get busy, they’re, you know, we understand that and we, we, you know, give them their space cuz everyone has a lot going on.

[00:27:20] But it really is flexible, built around your, your availability, your skills, and your interests. The other thing we do is that we know some people might come in with a little bit of knowledge of something, but not a lot. And maybe they wanna enhance those. So let’s say you’re, you know, preliminarily good at some website design, or maybe you’re someone who likes the, you know, you wanna learn more about fundraising.

[00:27:41] Well, maybe we’ll pair you with a volunteer who’s an expert in that on a project so you can get some sort of apprenticeship exposure. And we hope that you can develop those skills as a volunteer. Not just to be able to help other partners through v e P over time, but also that can add to your skill set as you develop your own career and can apply for jobs that look for those kind of skills.

[00:28:01] So like I said, we really want to invest in the people participating in the program as much as we’re investing in the organizations we’re serving.

[00:28:06] Yeah. That, you know, that makes, that makes sense in terms of just like the amount of time, like how much time is like, I’m gonna fill out this form. I’m like going through right now, I’m entering in my skills and the extra pieces that I can.

[00:28:18] You know, what is the amount of time before I would be potentially placed on a project? Or is it, it’s like I get called in if the project arises that matches

[00:28:26] it. The volunteer can get invited whenever we have any project that seems to meet their skill set. So it might be that someone signs up and maybe they’re someone who has video editing and video prediction skills.

[00:28:37] And at the moment there isn’t an organization who needs that. Well, it might be, you know, we’re not gonna reach out to that volunteer right away until we have that. But for many of the groups, they have such a broad range of needs for, for so many different skill sets that most volunteers have something that fits some project that’s open.

[00:28:53] It can be as complex as doing some really sophisticated regression analysis of something, something through data, data tools, or it can be as simple as data. Just need to find out what is the demographic breakdown among 18 a plus year old in Milwaukee. Folks can just quickly research that and pull together and make it into a little, you know, worksheet that they provide to the partner.

[00:29:17] So for most volunteers, we really will have an opportunity right away. Now you did mention, you know, how about right now we’re less than a week away from the election, and it’s true that most things towards the election is already in motion. But one of the things the organization said very clearly is that when they need help is not only September through.

[00:29:37] Perhaps even more important, starting next year, January through next summer, the summer of 2024, that’s when they have time to work on things, to take on new projects. That’s when they really want to test out new tools or new ways of doing outreach. That’s when they’d like to learn and take trainings on how to, they can improve their social media skills.

[00:29:58] So we really are aggressively inviting people to sign up, to volunteer right now while elections are on their. So they can help us out, you know, in November, in December, and into next year, which I think is gonna make or break voter turnout in 2024, if that’s something people care about.

[00:30:13] The human

[00:30:14] response to emotion and disaster thinking and of the moment is gotta be so frustrating for you. We donate and we’re triggered to donate to disasters, hurricanes, when they happen, and then the interest die. As well as the attention and then the commitment to it falls off. So it really does seem like when people are motivated in this window is, is when you would recruit the most volunteers.

[00:30:40] Is that accurate

[00:30:42] or do I have this wrong? It’s a hundred percent accurate that people are certainly more motivated to donate or volunteer. In the moment in a crisis in response to a, a severe event, whether that’s, as you mentioned, hurricanes like Katrina or the tsunami in Southeast Asia or it’s in the aftermath of earthquakes or, you know, horrible, horrific mass shootings in the US And then certainly elections and 2020 was probably a hallmark sign of how so many people were interested in getting involved.

[00:31:11] And some found a way, but many didn’t. And so we were one opportunity that many people got. And like I mentioned, a lot of folks said they appreciated our opportunity cause it was unique. It allowed them to use their existing skills and didn’t put them outta their comfort zone and let them work with amazing small, frontline person of color led organizations.

[00:31:29] But I think that’s the reality and I don’t blame anyone for being reactive when it comes to their tism in their philanthropy or their volunteer time. I think that’s just part of human nature. And that certainly was the case for me when I was younger and, you know, I evolved to become someone who really got.

[00:31:44] Year round. Volunteerism is a good thing, not just for the community, but for myself. And it can help me advance and grow as a person and in my career. So I take it upon ourselves to help educate the public that, you know, next year, next January, February, is as far away from an election cycle as you can be.

[00:32:01] That’s gonna, you know, really be on people’s minds, but that might be the best time to come. Volunt. And we want to earn folks interest in that by creating opportunities that are easy, that are meaningful, that are rewarding by investing their professional development. But really, we’re gonna sit down with all of the frontline organizations we work with, and we work with over 30, and we hope to grow that we’re gonna find out what do you need now in 2023 to help you grow?

[00:32:25] I wanna take that directly to the volunteers and say, I just heard from the most amazing frontline groups in Georgia and in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Arizona, and in Texas and Florida, and this is what they say they need to succeed. And you have those skills to help it. So we’re partnering, We’re looking to do an impressive outreach with universities.

[00:32:44] For example, we’ve contacted about 300 universities in several of the states that we’re working in, over the past couple weeks, thanks to our amazing interns who are working with us this fall. and we’re talking to multiple student groups in those universities saying, We’d love for you guys to volunteer.

[00:32:58] We’d love for your students to apply to intern with us, and we’d love to invest in those students so that they’re getting something out of this. And we think that’ll be a huge opportunity to, to both support young people, but also create a pipeline among them to become future leaders. In civic engagement, we wanna reach out to mid-career professionals, so folks who might be lawyers or data analysts or web designers and say, This could be a very easy way for you to compli.

[00:33:23] what you’re doing in your day job with a little bit of just rewarding altruism out there. And maybe that’ll even help you build some connections and build relationships. And then there’s a lot of executives and a lot of retirees who have enormous amount of skill, and especially the retirees have a lot of time on their hands.

[00:33:37] Mm-hmm. and saying, You know, here’s a great way you can help positively impact our country at a time when democracy is. So I’m consciously optimistic that we’ll be able to recruit more volunteers despite, you know, this year’s lower enthusiasm as we really invest in what we think is gonna matter to the volunteers.

[00:33:54] One more important

[00:33:56] part of the puzzle, I mean, you’re dealing with a two-sided marketplace, which is notoriously the hardest where you’re finding volunteers, but also the projects, the types of projects structured in a way that are. Package so that a volunteer can actually plug in play. But more importantly, you mentioned the, the 30 community based organizations as I understand it, that, that you have and you have built trust with because you know that is really where the actual impact occurs.

[00:34:26] Maybe you can talk a little bit about how you recruit them, how you work with them to find those types of projects, and even like what is the most common project you see coming

[00:34:35] in 2020? Yep. In late 2019 and early 2020, I just researched, you know, civic engagement organizations in the many states we were focusing on.

[00:34:47] And I could tell you it was an enormous amount of research. I built a, a very impressive list of 300 plus organizations and I just called email . And then I had emailed them a second time and then a third time, and I got a response rate of maybe about 10%, but even that was 20 plus organiz. But I heard from one of our, you know, the first organization we work with, an amazing group in Michigan called API Vote Michigan.

[00:35:05] The director has since joined our board and, and she’s lovely. Rebecca, she’s just been an amazing partner. She told me, you know, I got this email from you for free help and communications and social media and web design. I just didn’t think it was real. It seemed too good. Definitely fake. Definitely

[00:35:20] fake.

[00:35:20] Here’s three. Yeah, sure. Where’s the catch? Where’s the, you? .

[00:35:25] And so you’re right. We really had to earn the trust as a new organization that at the time was grassroots. We weren’t incorporated at the time. We were just a, I always say we were just a bunch of nerds with the Google spreadsheet and we were eventually able to earn through, you know, having her on board, having a couple others during our pilot phase, having them be able to give us quotes that we used in our email outreach to other groups to show that we were real.

[00:35:45] And so over time we built up, you know, we built connections with several groups, but the most important thing that we learned from them was that they. Didn’t wanna be told what to do. And I think that’s a very common relationship between Washington, DC and community based groups. Out in the field is a very didactic relationship, and that’s not what we were, We were very wanted to hear from them what their needs were.

[00:36:05] But the other thing they told us is that we would give ’em a list of ways we could help and they said, I didn’t even know I could access voter file data, or I didn’t even think about creating video ads to post on social media. So we didn’t know what we didn’t know until v p came and showed us the opportunities and that I really take pride in that we were able to help expand their scope of what they wanted to do to impact other entities out there.

[00:36:26] We were fortunate enough to then get incorporated. Last year we joined a fiscal sponsor that handles all our back ends and now, Formal non-profit c3. We have our web domain, we have our formal emails, so that really helps in our outreach now. And I can assure you I haven’t had as much difficulty getting organizations reaching out to me lately.

[00:36:42] Many, many want help. And so we’re actually in the opposite circumstance where we have so many projects that need to be done and not as many volunteers. Oh, interesting. Come all on. But again, I think that’s the heat of the election cycle. Could we really ramped up in the summer and. And I hope next year as we are past the election cycle, we have a bit more time to both grow our volunteer network to invest in them, but also work with the organizations.

[00:37:03] You know, they don’t need a three day turnaround on something after the election the way they do now. So after the election, we can take a writing project on, and it’s okay if it lasts three weeks, or we can do a web design and it’s okay if it lasts a month, and that’ll just help increase the number of volunteers who can participate since it’ll fit their schedule.

[00:37:19] That makes a lot of sense, but it also sounds like a lot of work. But that’s where the leverage comes in, right? That right there is, you know, building that trust packaging, productizing the types of ways that, v e P can support via volunteers and, you know, then, then move those, those projects forward. I mean, it’s, it’s really impressive.

[00:37:41] And I will say I’m, I’m sold. I officially, I hope I don’t offend you. I literally did. The whole submission of my, my form as a, as a potential volunteer. So, maybe I’ll be doing a follow up on my actual experience, because this makes a lot of sense to me.

[00:37:55] I’m always satisfied and happy when I hear a new volunteer signs up close.

[00:37:59] Very exciting. And I, I am shameless in recruiting anyone and everyone in all of my personal, professional and social engagement. So, so I’m very thankful, for you to. I should have

[00:38:08] known when I entered into this, this podcast that this would be the net result. Before we move into the Rapid Fire, any final, final thoughts, notes on the upcoming midterms, the chaos confusion or what you see with the

[00:38:22] organization?

[00:38:24] Yeah, I’d say two things. One is, uh, someone who’s worked both in the voter engagement volunteer side, but also on the policy side, trying to pass the Freedom to Vote Act this past year that. . I would argue that democracy is under attack now more than it’s been in well over half a century, and I haven’t been around for half a century.

[00:38:40] So I’ve consulted a lot of folks who ha were around when the Voting Rights Act and others Civil Rights Act were passed. And they absolutely agree that the vitreal and divisiveness we have now is, is very scary. And most importantly, the laws that were passed to disenfranchise the vote have made it so that it’s becoming legal.

[00:38:58] To basically impede someone’s constitutional right to vote. And so we really just hope people recognize that and are able to step up again with whatever they can. So my second point is when it comes to the voter empowerment project, we believe strongly that everyone can help in at least one of three ways.

[00:39:14] You can volunteer, you can donate, or you can share. Now we’d love for you to volunteer, but not everyone’s schedule allows, or maybe that’s not meet their interest. But then would you be considering making a tax deductible donation at $25 during our fall fundraising campaign where you know it’s gonna get matched by 200 bucks?

[00:39:31] Uh, but if for, for some reason that’s not possible either, can you just take our website and post it on social media? Say you heard it on this podcast, Sounded like a neat opportunity. Maybe you know, a few friends who have skills in graphic design or data analysis or web design or writing or fund. Can you email them real quickly and say, Hey, check out this website.

[00:39:48] And we really feel like everyone can do at least one of those three things to help us try to preserve democracy. And I’m not being hyperbolic. I, you know, it’s scary to think about where this country could be in 10 years or more if things continue in this way. So I’m, I’m just hoping we all can do our part and step up in whatever ways we can.

[00:40:04] Yeah.

[00:40:05] Catalyze on this, this moment of compassion and concern for the actual work that needs to be done with the organizations on the front. Makes a lot of sense to me. Alrighty. Moving into rapid fire. Here we go. What is one tech tool or website that you or your organization has started using in the

[00:40:23] last year?

[00:40:23] We recognize that doing everything off of spreadsheets was not possible. And so especially for managing all of the individuals who’ve donated to us and others we went to a very simple but very accessible CRM called action. And a lot of non-profits start there. There’s, you know, bigger ones and more sophisticated ones that are more expensive, but it’s really proven to be a very great entry level one for us to really get our, the, the hu the humans we work with into a, a, a more manageable circumstance, uh, so we can engage with them better, but also keep track of who’s involved with voter empowerment project.

[00:40:57] What tech issues are you currently battl?

[00:41:00] The single biggest tech challenge we’ve had is being effective at project management tracking. So we’ve been using spreadsheets primarily, and I think we were lucky enough to have some pretty smart data people who created really sophisticated.

[00:41:12] Formula is in our project management spreadsheet, so it is very functional, but we recognize the need to move over to more sophisticated project management tools. And we’re actually in the process of doing so. Uh, we have a contractor who’s bringing us on to monday.com in the next week or so, one of many that’s out there.

[00:41:27] And we definitely recommend to small non-profits that these tools, the one that fits your budget, the one that fits your needs. I really do think that they have a return on investment. Uh, and so we’re excited to transition over. What

[00:41:40] is coming in the next year that has you the most excited?

[00:41:43] I do believe that one way or the other, the elections will motivate people to get more involved in democracy, or at least I’m consciously optimistic.

[00:41:52] And I think everything that’s happening in our public discourse, is, is being felt by more and more people. I hope then we can tap into that by and recruit them to volunteer and that we’ll. The broad volunteer base next year like we had in 2020 to really meet the needs of the frontline partners that we know is gonna be great next year.

[00:42:11] Can

[00:42:11] you talk about a mistake that you made earlier in your career that shapes the way you do

[00:42:15] things? Now?

[00:42:16] Throughout my career, one thing I know I’ve done is try to do everything for everyone, all the. And that means, especially when working with Frontline Partners, which has been a core aspect of my career, whether it’s health policy or gender based violence or here in voting rights, and in this project, we really recognized the need to focus in on where help was needed most.

[00:42:37] And so we, you know, had to pick certain states where we knew voter suppression was at high risk. We also had to decide which services do we do, and which services do we know not focus on. We purposely limited our focus to voter engagement and not policy and. And then we really had to decide which groups to work with.

[00:42:54] And so we prioritized small groups that are under resourced, that are at the state and local level. Even though there’s other groups that are very deservative of help, we just wanted to tailor and focus in so we can, you know, do it well for the people we’re serving.

[00:43:07] Do you believe that

[00:43:08] nonprofits can successfully go out of

[00:43:10] business?

[00:43:10] I think I have a broad response to that question. I think there are circumstances where there’s a very intense specific need, a need to pass this bill, a need to address this urgent climate crisis that’s in a particular community where a coalition can form or a non-profit can set up and they can say, Look, we’re here through the end of this problem.

[00:43:28] It might be a year, it might be five years. We’re fundraising for it, we’re staffing up for it, we’re gonna. For the better. And then we disband, and I think that’s healthy. So I think sometimes a lot of non-profits start up and then they’re just in perpetuity forever, and then they’re just fundraising forever and then they just become part of the Emilio.

[00:43:43] But I do think a lot of the other non-profits that are built to solve some of the most intense issues of inequity, both domestically and internationally, I, I just don’t have optimism that we’re gonna solve most of those issues anytime soon. And so sadly, we do need those non-profits to exist and to fundraise and to have.

[00:43:59] Over the long haul as we try to solve really big problems with really great solutions. Do you think the voter

[00:44:05] empowerment project could successfully

[00:44:07] go out of business? I will happily, you know, close up shop of the voter empowerment project. If and when every person is very able to exercise their right to vote in a, in a easily accessible way.

[00:44:22] I think the trend is heading in very much the opposite direction. And so, you know, the main reason for us incorporating is. We check, is there a need for this model long term? Is there a support for it? Is, you know, does our frontline partners think that they need this help, uh, going forward? And the answer was absolutely yes.

[00:44:38] So for as long as we can be helpful, we’ll be around, uh, as long as we have the funding to do so. But if and when voting becomes as easy as it should be in the country, I will be the first person to close up our shop, free up our web domain for anyone else, and to, for us to go focus on the next big problem.

[00:44:54] We won’t be holding

[00:44:55] our breath. Uh, aspirationally. I like it. If I were to put you in a hot tub time machine back to the beginning of your work with the voter Empowerment project in 2019, what advice would you give yourself?

[00:45:07] Uh, a few, a few things. One would be start earlier. Uh, we certainly were aggressive in our thinking in 2019, but you know, we should have started it earlier.

[00:45:13] The second would be to build relationships with formal entities sooner. Whether that’s national organizations or especially universities. Uh, it wasn’t until later that I really realized how much students were an, an amazing source of volunteers and had unbelievable skills, social media, web design, writing, uh, so start there earlier.

[00:45:32] And then thirdly, I would’ve invested our project management tool much earlier on because I think that would’ve made us much more efficient. And so I do encourage organizations to think about that instead of just relying on spreadsheets and.

[00:45:44] What

[00:45:44] is something that you think your org should

[00:45:47] stop doing?

[00:45:49] We’re really exploring next year comprehensively. What should our focus area be? You know, do we continue exactly how our model is? Should we expand the organizations we work with? Should we expand how we help? Should we look into charging money for our services? I. One of the things I think we’ve been good at is making sure we don’t have mission creep.

[00:46:07] And so I want us to resist that urge as much as possible. Cuz we’ve all, we’ve all heard the great need from the frontline organizations and so far we’ve been able to resist. I think there’s a temptation to want to do more and to expand outward in a way that might stretch us too thin. And so that’s one thing that I’m really hoping we, we avoid doing.

[00:46:25] If you had a magic

[00:46:26] wand to wave across the industry, what

[00:46:28] would it. I would absolutely love more organizations to make good on their commitments to dei. I think there’s a lot of talk and a lot of great language on websites about wanting to diversify their staff and wanting to ensure that more funding is going to under-resourced organizations from historically, you know, underprivileged communities.

[00:46:46] I think it’s starting, It’s nowhere near where it should be, and so I’m the kind of person that wants to have this job. But if there’s a great person with lived experie, That really has a better way to fit. I wanna be someone who will step out of the way and let them take the reins. And I just hope more people in the in the movement will recognize that one of the problems is who’s in charge, and if they’re willing to step away, that might actually help, uh, advance the cause.

[00:47:08] How did you get started in the social impact sector?

[00:47:11] It’s interesting because my college focus very, was actually biology. I was really into the hard sciences and life sciences and wanted to pursue, you know, medicine over time. But before I applied to med school, I actually did an AmeriCorps program in Boston for two years working with young people in Boston, as well as focusing on healthcare advocacy in Massachusetts, and I got hooked.

[00:47:30] I loved the advocacy area. I love the organizing side. I love the policy side. You know, the thinking part of my brain. Loved problem. But the human side really loved working with people, especially people who were facing challenges. Uh, and so that really, really stuck to me and I ended up going to med school and then halfway through I ended up quitting.

[00:47:48] Cause I really missed the advocacy side when coming back to it. So I thank AmeriCorps so much for that experience. What

[00:47:55] advice would you give college grads currently looking to enter the social impact sector?

[00:48:00] I think broadly is. Really identify what is it you care about in terms of issue. Is it healthcare?

[00:48:07] Is it climate? Is it, uh, criminal justice reform? Think about the ways you, what you like to do. Is it social media? Is it writing? Is it fundraising? Is it policy? Is it organizing? And then reach out to as many people as you know that are in the field. Not everyone likes to take on college grads as mentors, but many people out there are happy to talk to you.

[00:48:25] I’m happy to talk to folks to just give them that advice. I will say this, right now, when you look at the job, If you are in development or you’re in digital strategy, those are the two things. Well, you’ll be employed for the next 10 to 20 years for sure. So if that’s something you understand, I definitely recommend going into fundraising, Going into social media, digital strategy, what advice

[00:48:45] did your parents give you that you either followed or didn’t quite

[00:48:49] follow?

[00:48:50] Uh, my, I think at a young age, certainly there was a lot of pressure to do well in school and to make. And I think, uh, I think over time I’ve been able to help my parents understand how great it is to be in sort of progressive non-profit advocacy. But I think probably most importantly is they’re just very into family and community and just sort of, you know, loving respect and honoring people in your life and, you know, contributing that way.

[00:49:13] And I absolutely think I channeled that to the broader community at large. Uh, I will say the advice they’re not, I’m not taking, that they would be mad at is going to visit them more. And so I think I know I need to do. Thanksgiving coming up, so I’ll, I’ll be sure to go and see them. Gotta go visit. Have you called

[00:49:28] your mom

[00:49:30] Yes. We talk, we talk periodically. Not as much as they’d like, but uh, but they’ve actually over the years, have become a lot more active in social justice issues and fundraising and donating and whatever. They sort of do something progressive or they donate money to a candidate or they, you know, knock on doors.

[00:49:43] My mom will always text me excitedly and so it, it is heartwarming to see sort of how we’ve both, you know, we kind of share those interests in sort of supporting the. That’s awesome.

[00:49:52] Also, shout out to my mom, who’s probably listening to this podcast. Hi mom. Alrighty, , final hardball question. How do people find you?

[00:50:00] How do

[00:50:00] people help you?

[00:50:01] Please check us [email protected] As I mentioned earlier, there’s three ways you can help that anyone can help. You can volunteer, you can donate, or you can share. Please sign up to volunteer. I promise you the opportunities will be fun. They’ll be interesting, they’ll be meaningful and rewarding, and we invest in you so you can grow your skills.

[00:50:21] If you can’t do that, or in addition to, can you please donate $20, $25, a hundred dollars, whatever you can spare, our, our generous board member is matching every donation with a $200, uh, match. And so we hope to get as many donors between now and the holiday. And then lastly, can you share our website? Can you share our social media?

[00:50:40] Adam Empower Voters on Twitter and on Instagram. And voter empowerment.org is our website. We just need more people to know about us to know that we exist, cuz we know once folks find out about us and get involved, they really do appreciate our model and what, what it sort of allows for them to do as a volunteer.

[00:50:54] And we just need to get that word out more. And we really appreciate everyone helping us do so. You have

[00:50:59] it. Share either your time, your treasure, or your tweets. Do. I love the skill-based approach to a massive problem facing democracy in our country. I wish you all the best, and I thank you. Thank you for

[00:51:12] the work you do.

[00:51:14] Thank you George, so much for having me. And thank you for doing this innovative podcast. I, I always appreciate it and folks in the media really prioritize bringing folks on board who can talk about, you know, movement building. And so thank you so much for what you

[00:51:24] do.