Aaron Hamlin of The Center for Election Science: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization
Know how to ask others to give. Most nonprofits require funding to do what they do. You’ll need to be able to craft your story well, make a strong case, and be good at relationship building. And then you need to be able to actually ask. Most people will not give you donations on their own. Critically, it’s important to not feel like others are “doing you a favor.” They’re not. You’re giving them the opportunity. They’re talking to you because they share your common goal. They believe in the engine that you’ve created or are creating to make this change. They want that change — the world you’re creating. And that’s why they’re going to give. Show them that.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aaron Hamlin.
Aaron Hamlin is the co-founder and executive director of The Center for Election Science (CES). CES works to bring agency to voters by way of letting them pick (not rank) as many candidates as they wish — called approval voting. Aaron has set up multiple nonprofits, has two graduate degrees in the social sciences as well as a law degree.
Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
I grew up in Kentucky and then went to school for a long time to try to find something meaningful that I would be good at. That I was in school for over a decade is a good indicator for how challenging this was for me.
The first time I heard about the concept of a voting method was during grad school. For context, a voting method is a set of rules that tells you what type of information you can put on the ballot and how to use that information to calculate a result. We’re used to this choose-one voting method (called plurality or first-past-the-post) where the candidate with the most votes wins. But that’s not the only method; fortunately, there are many others.
So in grad school, I was part of this student group for health care reform. This was in 2008 during a presidential primary. While my friends in this group and I were out at dinner we were talking about who we were going to vote for. To my surprise, everyone was talking about voting for someone who was opposed to the healthcare reform we were organizing around. The explanation for this was that they didn’t want to “waste their vote.”
I felt like I could have taken this a couple different ways. I could have just bothered my friends. And while I did admittedly do a little of that, I also saw this as a larger issue that was manipulating my friends — and, really, everyone — to vote against their interests. Our choose-one voting method forced them to choose only one candidate, one who was not well-aligned with their views. And I saw there were other options than our choose-one approach. From then on, I was obsessed with improving our voting method.
Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start or join your non nonprofit?
As I was finishing my masters in public health degree, I was talking to my advisor. He made a couple suggestions. The first was entering a Ph.D. program. I wound up taking his second piece of advice, which was law school. I had seen that some courts would change the voting method as a remedy for a Voting Rights Act violation. Leading those cases seemed like a reasonable way to go.
That approach actually wasn’t a very good idea. It would have been slow, limited in scope, and less reliable. Fortunately, my law school also had a program called the Nonprofit Incorporation Project. There, a mentor helped me with clients who wanted to set up a nonprofit. I used that experience myself to set up The Center for Election Science (CES), now a national, nonpartisan nonprofit focused on voting reform. At the time, I was around a lot of technical folks, mostly engineers and mathematicians, interested in voting methods. But they didn’t have the technical expertise to set up an organization. Being in law school, I was the one who was best positioned to do the initial organizational lifting.
Fortunately, I now have a great team working with me at CES. We now have staff, which wasn’t the case in our earlier years. And it’s because of our dedicated staff that we’re actually able to achieve the outcomes that we do. We’re meticulous with our hiring and work hard on our retention. Consequently, we have a really talented and motivated team.
Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
There is a terrible disconnect between the interests of those who vote and the interests of those who they elect. Of course, those interests should be one and the same, or at least, significantly overlap. But too often, they don’t. That’s a problem because people in office determine the policies that govern our day-to-day lives and how our hard-earned taxpayer dollars are spent.
The one time we absolutely cannot be ignored by our elected officials is when we vote. The problem is that the tool we’re given in this rare circumstance is broken. Our current voting system forces us to choose only one candidate. That means if multiple similar, yet popular candidates run, they split the vote. That vote splitting among the popular candidates can allow a less popular (and sometimes quite polarizing candidate) to win by default. It also means that new ideas — popular ones, even — aren’t given their due. This can encourage political stagnation on critical issues that need to be addressed.
Empowering voters with the ability to select as many candidates as they want means an end to this vote splitting problem and stagnation. It means actually having alignment between what the people want and the interests of those whom they elect. This approach, called approval voting, allows voters to actually support the candidates who share their concerns. This reform is where CES spends its focus.
Importantly, this reform is so simple that it’s much easier to explain and implement. And it’s not at the cost of its performance. Approval voting is empirically tested in peer-reviewed research to more accurately measure candidate support than other more complex ranking methods as well as far better than our choose-one system. It is truly a bang-for-your-buck reform.
Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?
I think the temptation that we find ourselves in — particularly with elections — is that we think too much about whether “our person” gets elected. That’s not the job of a voting method. It’s not about representing one person. The job of the voting method is to accurately measure each candidate’s support and select the candidate that best represents the whole electorate. That means everybody.
One interesting story is that of St. Louis. Like countless other cities, St. Louis had (note the past tense) a vote splitting problem due to its choose-one voting method. Again, vote splitting occurs when votes are distributed amongst similar candidates. Vote splitting was particularly bad for voters in the Black and progressive community. Consequently, voters elected a mayor who didn’t represent them. That mayor wound up doxing local protesters in the city by publicly sharing their personal information.
Approval voting passed by 68% in St. Louis thanks to the work of the local group CES partnered with. Because of this, the incumbent mayor at the time decided not to run at all. The writing was on the wall.
Flash forward to the next election cycle, now with approval voting. There, voters seated the city’s first Black woman mayor, one of the same popular candidates who lost in the last cycle due to vote splitting.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
I think the answer to this question depends on which position you’re in. If you’re a citizen in your city or state, particularly if your state allows for ballot initiatives, then I would recommend joining our nationwide chapter system, which you can do through our website at www.electionscience.org (look under “Take Action”). Our chapter system will help take you through the steps to build the movement to bring approval voting to where you are. We have a replicable and scalable system here. Our Director of Campaigns & Advocacy, Chris Raleigh, did a great job creating this program.
If you’re a leader within a civic group, then you can talk about approval voting with your community. Civic groups are key for transforming new ideas into action. Your voice will help others recognize their own tools for empowerment.
Finally, if you’re an elected official, you have the privilege and responsibility to expedite this entire process. Instead of requiring tedious and expensive signature gathering, elected officials can put approval voting directly on the ballot. I’m hoping more officials catch wind of this and take this approach.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I define leadership as the ability to motivate people around a clear, shared goal.
To be clear, leadership isn’t just motivating folks and getting them excited. It’s also about the shared goal. That goal should be meaningful, challenging, and yet worthwhile to strive for. This is especially relevant during times of struggle. That’s when folks need to be reminded of how worthwhile the fight is and what we’re in this for. And to let them know that although the goal itself may be tough to attain, it is indeed attainable with a strong plan.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non profit”. Please share a story or example for each.
First, determine whether a nonprofit is the right tool for what you are trying to accomplish. If you’re selling a good or service in particular, then there may indeed be better alternatives. Also, particularly if you don’t need significant revenue, what you’re doing may be better as an independent project — at least in the beginning. The truth is that you don’t know whether you’ll succeed. Unfortunately, many nonprofits do not. And so it’s helpful to not make failure be terribly expensive should it occur.
Second, know whether this is the best use of your time. Are others already doing what you’re interested in? If so, maybe volunteer, work, or donate to that organization. If an area is not neglected, then you might not be adding the value you hope to. Worse still, you could be splitting scarce resources and making solving the problem more challenging.
Third, be really excited about what you’re doing. The amount of work that goes into starting and running a nonprofit is incredible. It tracks just as if you were starting your own for-profit business. Both require tremendous planning and effort. And your excitement is going to be necessary to fuel you through all the stress and challenges you will face along the way.
Fourth, know how to get others excited about what you’re doing. You’ll need to be able to excite others to get strong board members, partner organizations, volunteers, and staff. You must understand the logic of how what you’re doing connects to the outcomes you’ll be able to achieve. Perhaps most importantly, you must be able to tell that as an engaging story.
Fifth, know how to ask others to give. Most nonprofits require funding to do what they do. You’ll need to be able to craft your story well, make a strong case, and be good at relationship building. And then you need to be able to actually ask. Most people will not give you donations on their own. Critically, it’s important to not feel like others are “doing you a favor.” They’re not. You’re giving them the opportunity. They’re talking to you because they share your common goal. They believe in the engine that you’ve created or are creating to make this change. They want that change — the world you’re creating. And that’s why they’re going to give. Show them that.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
One particularly interesting person I’d enjoy talking with would be Ralph Nader. He’s certainly someone who has set up his share of nonprofits. Also, as someone who’s been a victim of our voting method, I think he’d be particularly interested in our work. Regardless of political affiliation, I sympathize with those who are told that they shouldn’t run or shouldn’t vote for certain people. Naturally, I find it asinine that this is the system we’re (currently) operating in.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
-George Bernard Shaw
If we settle on the idea that we cannot improve our world or that we aren’t capable of pushing forward in a meaningful way, then we’re stuck. I’ve been told countless times — particularly early on in my nonprofit career — that our work would be futile. As our wins add up and we continue to scale upwards, this criticism has become less common. Of course, the mountain always appears larger when you’re looking up at it from the base versus when you’re looking up at it halfway through the climb.
All that is to say, keep pushing forward. Meaningful progress is hard, but it needs to be done by someone.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can find me at @aaronfhamlin on Twitter and check out my personal website www.aaronhamlin.com. I have lots of essays there covering voting theory, contraceptive technology (based on another nonprofit I started), nonprofit setup and management, and technical aspects of charitable giving. I also write on random topics such as how to memorize a deck of cards and how to keep your bike from getting stolen. One of my hobbies is lockpicking, and so I think about the security side. I also wanted to avoid having my own e-bike stolen.
It’s also easy to keep up with the work we are up to at CES by visiting www.electionscience.org. We have a great newsletter that keeps subscribers up to date (you can sign up off our homepage) and an active Discord community. You can also connect with CES on Twitter at @ElectionScience and LinkedIn. I highly recommend following and sharing our work with your community.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.
Aaron Hamlin of The Center for Election Science: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.