This article is designed to examine the role non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play in politics. Previous evidence suggests that NGOs mobilize communities to challenge existing patterns of authority or that they serve hand in glove with existing elites. We reconcile these two contradictory findings by identifying an important contextual feature that helps determine the extent NGOs mobilize or anesthetize. We argue that a community’s level of education influences not only whether people vote but how they vote. We employ a cross-sectional data set from Brazilian municipalities that allows us to estimate the relationship between NGOs, voting turnout, and electoral results. We find that although there is a significant statistical interaction between literacy and NGOs when explaining voting turnout, the effect is not substantively important. The interaction between literacy and NGOs is, however, an important consideration in determining how people vote: in communities with relatively low literacy rates, a robust NGO presence significantly increases the left’s electoral fortunes. Our findings imply the influence NGOs have on society is more political than social.