It’s bound to happen sooner or later… There is a candidate for office that comes out strongly for or against your organization’s goals. How involved can you become in the political process to ensure the election goes to the candidate most favorably disposed to your interests? It is a perennial question – one that especially seems to crop up during the election season.
The answer is clear for nonprofit organizations with a 501(c)(3) tax status. They may not support or oppose specific candidates for office. Period. If they do, they can lose their tax exemption.
This prohibition against supporting or opposing candidates covers initial efforts to find and draft individuals to run. It stands even in the case of nonpartisan races. There is no safe level at which you may support a candidate and feel confident that your organization will avoid negative consequences. Of course, fund raising for candidates is a real no-no.
However, that does not mean that your 501(c)(3) organization is prohibited from engaging in all political activity. Despite the fact that the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Election Commission each place different – and sometimes contradictory – demands on organizations that wish to lobby, there are some guidelines that you can follow with confidence. This column provides a simplified version of the IRS guidelines.
You may specifically endorse or denounce a candidate as long as you make it clear you are speaking only for yourself and not for the organization. This means that your organizational affiliation should not be mentioned, and that no organizational funds, facilities, or personnel are utilized to disseminate the message.
If your organization publicly holds incumbents accountable for their votes in non-election years – criticizing them for decisions that go against organizational values – the organization may continue to criticize the incumbents in an election year. However, the level of criticism should remain similar to previous years if you hope to avoid claims of illegal intervention in the campaign.
Your organization may invite a candidate to a special event, as long as you do not use that event as an opportunity to endorse or denounce the individual or his/her opposition. Other candidates should be offered the same invitation, and you should avoid political fund raising at the event.
You might sponsor a forum at which candidates can promote their platforms. Here, again, you should be sure that you invite all candidates. The IRS also requires that you ask an independent panel to design questions around a broad range of issues, that you give each candidate an equal amount of time to present his or her views, that you have a neutral moderator, and that the program begins and ends with a disclaimer. This is the familiar refrain: “The views expressed are not necessarily those of the sponsoring organization.”
You may put out a voter guide, but only if it is designed to impartially educate people on a wide variety of issues. It should not deal strictly with issues related to your organization’s agenda. To gather the material for a voter guide, send out candidate questionnaires to all those running for a given office. If asking open-ended questions, print the responses in full to avoid misrepresenting the candidates.
You may contact the candidates to share your concerns about issues, and you may even ask them to publicly endorse your viewpoint. However, you cannot ask them to sign a pledge to support your position in the future because that would imply that your organization supports only those candidates that sign the pledge.
For more information on this subject consult The Rules of the Game: An Election Year Legal Guide for Nonprofit Organizations by Gregory L. Colvin and Lowell Finley. This book is a 1996 publication of the Alliance for Justice, and can be ordered by phoning 202-822-6070.
This article by Terrie Temkin first appeared in The Miami Herald, October 12, 1998.