With 2020 and the upcoming November Presidential election quickly-approaching, political chatter will definitely be in the air—from co-workers discussing the debates at the water cooler to family members posting their views on Facebook. Although the first amendment protects our rights to express our views as individuals, non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations must be careful, as they cannot legally engage in the same kind of political activities as an individual or for-profit organization can.
The Internal Revenue Code prohibits all 501(c)(3) organizations from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate. Non-profits therefore cannot endorse a candidate or contribute money to a candidate’s campaign. Verbal or written public statements of position for or against a candidate would definitely violate this prohibition. Nonprofits who violate this political activity prohibition risk jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.
Many nonprofits are driven by a focus on social justice, so these political restrictions may appear limiting; however, non-profit workers—from Board members and officers to employees and volunteers—may express their political views as long as they do so as an individual and such views are not attributed in any way to the nonprofit. Nonprofits can lobby on issues, work to educate the public on issues, and encourage participation in the political process, such as through voter registration and voter engagement activities. Of course, these activities must be conducted in a completely non-partisan manner.
Nonprofits can invite a candidate to speak, as long as they carefully follow the parameters. If the candidate is speaking in a candidate capacity, the organization must provide an equal opportunity to all political candidates seeking the same office to participate, must not indicate any support for or opposition to any candidate, and political fundraising cannot occur. Candidates may also be invited to speak in a non-candidate capacity as long as the individual is chosen for reasons other than candidacy, he or she speaks in a non-candidate capacity, no mention is made of the individual’s candidacy, the event remains nonpartisan, no campaign activity occurs, and the organization clearly reflects the capacity in which the candidate is appearing, without any mention of political candidacy.
As political talk becomes more and more commonplace, especially with social media and other available online platforms, Nonprofits must be sure to remain non-political and to abide by these specifications in order to protect their tax-exempt status. It’s important to train your people who will be representing the nonprofit so you don’t run into these pitfalls and risk losing your 501(c)(3) status.
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