Nonprofits work on many different issues and use lots of different methods to achieve their goals - from direct service delivery, to social justice advocacy, to non-partisan civic engagement.
Our EveryAction Hero this month, the Environmental Voter Project (EVP), has one unique way of building the world they want: by getting environmentalists to go out and vote. I spoke with Nathaniel Stinnett, Founder and CEO of EVP, about how they're turning non-voting environmentalists into dedicated, lifelong advocates.
"What kind of work does EVP do?"
Nathaniel Stinnett: The Environmental Voter Project turns non-voting environmentalists into consistent “super voters." Right now in the United States, voters list climate change as one of their lowest priorities - which means politicians don’t feel much pressure to address the issue.
But by using big data analytics, the Environmental Voter Project has been able to identify 15.78 million environmentalists who don’t vote. Most people think "oh my gosh, it’s so terrible that 15 million environmentalists don’t vote," and they may get depressed - but they shouldn’t! Because persuading someone to start caring about the environment is really hard and really expensive, but persuading someone who cares about the environment to just alter their habits a bit and start voting is much easier, and a lot cheaper.
So what we do is apply cutting-edge behavioral science to change their habits and nudge them toward being better voters. Believe me: when 15 million more environmentalists are voting, politicians will start paying attention.
"What motivates you to do this work?"
NS: Climate change is quite literally an existential problem - the enormity of the climate crisis is hard to fathom. Yet we still don’t have the political leadership to address this problem. The main reason why that’s the case is that so few voters prioritize climate change and other environmental issues as being important to them. And if voters don’t care about an issue, we can’t expect politicians to care either.
So why I think our work is so important is we’ve realized at EVP that the environmental movement doesn’t necessarily have a persuasion problem, we just have a turnout problem. We just need to find these environmental non-voters and change their habits a bit and get them to start voting. And when that happens, the change can be quick and significant.
"Can you talk more about your use of data & targeting?"
NS: We work with a data analytics shop called Clarity Campaign Labs, and they have helped us identify not just the hardcore environmentalists who are out there, but other people who really care about the environment as one of their top priorities. Then, we choose to focus on those who are really poor voters - because there are plenty of groups who already contact the good voters, but almost nobody goes after the poor voters.
We then use the same cutting-edge techniques that very sophisticated political campaigns use: we have door-to-door canvassers using really well tested messaging, we have phone banks, we have direct mail, we use digital ads, and all these messages are only designed to do one thing: we just want these people to vote.
We don’t waste any time telling them to care about the environment because we already know they care about the environment. We don’t waste any time telling them who to vote for, because plenty of other organizations do that. We just want them to vote. In that respect, we’re kind of like a big data version of 'Rock the Vote' for environmentalists.
"Do you work in specific states or types of elections?"
NS: We only launched the organization six months ago in Massachusetts, but we’re growing pretty quickly, and we already have a small footprint in 31 other states.
Our focus is to find individuals and then get them to vote in every election, even things like school committee races, because we’re trying to create a habit here. What we don’t do is just target important elections.
We don’t try to parachute in and win an election, because honestly, going after bad voters is not a good way to win a single, particular election. However, going after bad voters is a great way to change the electorate, and that’s what we’re looking to do.
As we start mapping out our expansion into new states, we’re looking for areas where there’s a high concentration of non-voting environmentalists. When we go into those areas, we go in for the long-haul: we turn our people out for every election from school board to president and everything in between.
[Above: EVP canvassers take to the streets on Super Tuesday]
"How is online organizing and EveryAction important to your work?"
NS: I’d say one of our favorite digital tools is actually a simple online voter pledge form that EveryAction has built for us that syncs to our databases. It allows environmentalists to go on our website, pledge to be consistent voters by filling out the form, and then their information goes right into our database.
That enables us to contact them and remind them to vote, either by phone, email, or direct mail before every election. This might not sound like a big deal, but numerous studies have shown that if you simply remind voters of their previous pledges to vote, you can dramatically increase their likelihood of voting. It's a really cheap and effective way to increase voter turnout.
And yes, it’s just an online form, but the fact that EveryAction has built our website, maintains our voter and membership databases, and everything can be synced up together means that we can easily collect this data and then very quickly and cheaply turn it into increased turnout.
"What are you building in 2016?"
NS: We’re just launching our voter registration efforts and I’m really excited about it. That's because not only are we able to individually identify registered environmentalists who don’t vote, we can also identify environmentalists who have never registered before. That’s powerful because we can go door-to-door, and know where these people can be reached.
Most voter registration drives don’t have the power of big data behind them. Many just set up a table to register voters outside a supermarket or something, but we can target individual environmentalists who need to be registered to vote. Beyond the precision of our data being so exciting, voter registration is just fun! I’ve been running campaigns for a long time, and the joy of registering someone to vote for the first time never gets old.
Our EveryAction Hero is a monthly blog series featuring clients that inspire us. Want to talk more about the work we do for EVP or find out how EveryAction can help your nonprofit? Click here to email Katie!