Charities and political activity— the unwelcome spotlight

 Joan M. Renner, CPA, CGMA, Director 501(c)(fit!)

Political candidates can be good for your nonprofit.  They raise the profile of your events, increase public interest in your activities, and prove to be good friends once in office.  Why would a nonprofit avoid benefits like these?

Well, charities who participate in partisan political activity risk losing their exempt status.  While nonprofit leaders know this, it’s not always easy to see when subtle changes in the environment, or changes in how activities are conducted, threaten to make non-political activities look like election activities without warning.

 Who’s going to call you out on this?  Political opponents.  It’s no secret that political candidates and their supporters criticize the activities of their opponents all the time, but getting your charity too close to politics could put your organization in an unwelcome spotlight. 

One nonprofit leader who attended our 501(c)(fit!) financial leadership seminar shared a story we can all appreciate.  His nonprofit was honored when a popular national political figure attended the charity’s fundraising event, expressing support for their cause.  The local papers ran pictures of the high-profile guest congratulating leaders of the charity on their good work.  The problem was that the guest was also a political candidate.  It wasn’t long before detractors popped up and criticized the charity for promoting a candidate for public office.  The welcome attention to their fundraiser turned into accusations of partisan political activity.

What can we learn?

Know what you can do and do it right.  You can encourage people to vote, as long as you do so in an unbiased way.  You can produce a voter’s guide, and you can sponsor a candidates’ forum or debate, but you can’t show preference in its content or in the way it is conducted. 

Know what you can’t do and prohibit it.  Your organization can not endorse or oppose candidates for federal, state or local office.  You can’t make or solicit campaign contributions.  You can’t make written or oral statements that encourage people to vote for or against a candidate and you can’t place political ads. 

Have policies and procedures prohibiting the activities your charity may not conduct.  Review your policies with your Board and CEO.

Ban the words “candidate” and “election” as well as any “partisan” descriptions from your events and official discourse.  Recognize public figures in terms of their position, rather than their party affiliation or candidacy in an upcoming election. 

Avoid singling out any one candidate as an honoree, speaker, emcee or auctioneer at your event.  Giving one candidate a featured role makes it almost impossible to treat all candidates equally.  If you do decide to feature a candidate in this way, see the banned words above.

Prohibit political fundraising at your events.

Don’t Mention “the upcoming election” in your issue advocacy unless you are creating a non-partisan voters guide.  Be especially careful if your issue becomes an election hot topic that distinguishes one candidate from another.

Ensure that your organization’s leaders speak for themselves as individuals when supporting candidates.  Individuals should not mention your charity’s name or their Board title.  Take off the badge.

Avoid political comments on your website and in your charity’s social media. 

Avoid Board meeting discussions about supporting or opposing candidates for public office.  Don’t discuss how a candidate’s views agree or disagree with the charity’s views on a campaign issue. 

Don’t give candidates access to your mailing list or facilities unless they are made available equally to all candidates on a regular basis.

Check the IRS guidance on The Restriction of Political Campaign Intervention by Section 501(c)(3) Tax Exempt Organizations.  

We present a helpful session on Your Tax Exempt Status— Care and Feeding in our upcoming financial leadership seminar, 501(c)(fit!)—Financial Leadership Training for Emerging Nonprofit Professionals.    

Our emerging leaders training helps nonprofit professionals oversee their organization’s finance function.  Learn more about our live two-day financial leadership seminar, 501(c)(fit!)—Financial Leadership Training for Emerging Nonprofit Professionals.    

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