Pat Libby, Director for the Institute for Nonprofit Education and Research
During an election year nonprofits offer wonder (and worry) about what role they can take (if any) to influence the political environment. Too often organizations do nothing for fear that they’ll violate the law and lose their tax exempt status (I’m speaking here of 501 (c) (3) organizations). This is a strategy (or lack thereof) born out of ignorance!
Nonprofits have the legal right to do lots of proactive things during an election year. And, they should get involved to make sure their views are known and represented properly.
5 Simple and Legal Ideas:
1. Register people to vote! Registering the people you serve to vote and orienting them on how voting works is a terrific way to engage your community in the political process. For example, in addition to signing up folks, you might also want to tell them where their polling place is located, show them a sample ballot, explain what the process will look like when they walk in the door of the voting place, etc. People will be more likely to vote if you can take the mystery and fear out of the process.
2. Endorse a ballot campaign. Nonprofits can freely endorse a ballot campaign without fear of losing their tax exempt status (the IRS will, however, count toward money you spend on this activity toward your annual legal lobbying limit). That type of action is so important because there are many issues on the ballot this year that will have a direct impact on nonprofits. For example, in California there will be ballot questions having to do with raising taxes which have the potential to impact the bottom line of nonprofits and the people they serve that are receiving, or hope to receive, support from the state. Your board should discuss whether it wants to take a stand on these ballot questions, and if so, how it wants to communicate that stand to your members and to the general public. You could, for example, write an article or blog on your website or in a newsletter explaining the importance of a particular ballot issue and why your organization supports that issue, you could put a sign in the window of your organization, you could also have an information session at your organization to explain the ballot question.
3. Invite the candidates for a tour. Invite all of the candidates who are running for office in your district, to tour your organization or community. Alternatively, take the time to set up a meeting with the candidates to explain your work. You can do this with candidates who are running for office at the city, county, state and/or federal level. There is no need to get to them all at once unless you’re sponsoring a debate (see below). In fact, it is even more effective to reach out to each candidate individually. This is a terrific, nonpartisan way of making sure that the person who is ultimately elected is familiar with your nonprofit and the issue you represent. To prepare for that meeting, be sure to have nice looking presentation materials about your organization and the issue(s) that is most important to you. Keep the length of materials as short as possible (a double sided fact sheet is ideal) and remember too to rehearse your presentation in advance. Just be sure to treat all candidates equally and provide them the same information.
4. Be a conduit for information. If you don’t have time for individual meetings with all of the candidates, you can send their campaign a questionnaire asking each candidate to express his or her views on the issues that are important to your organization. You can then publish the results of those questionnaires in your newsletter or on your website. Make sure that you aren’t asking “yes” and “no” questions so that it doesn’t appear that you are boxing people into a corner. Asking more open ended questions will also get you more thoughtful responses. For example, instead of asking “Are you in favor of subsidies for affordable housing?” you might ask, “Do you believe the state has a role to play in addressing the lack of affordable housing? If so, what should that role be?” The IRS requires that you ask about a broad range of issues – not just those that are specific to your area.
5. Host a debate. As mentioned briefly in #3 above, you can also host a candidate debate. Due to the demand on the candidate’s time, that can be a tall order for a single organization to pull off by itself so you’d probably want to host a debate in collaboration with other like-minded nonprofits. For example, a coalition of arts organizations, environmental groups, housing groups, etc. That way you can not only share the work of organizing the event itself, you can also increase the likelihood that the candidates will agree to come because they’ll know that in doing so they’ll be able to reach a large audience of voters. When you prepare the questions for the debate, be sure to include some general questions so that they are not all focused only on the issue your organization represents (that’s to be in keeping with IRS regulations on political activity).
Do you have questions about lobbying?
Whenever I have a technical question about whether an activity is legally permissible by a nonprofit organization, for example, you may wonder about how you can word an endorsement of a ballot campaign, I always refer to the experts at either Alliance for Justice or Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest. They’re legal experts in nonprofit lobbying law and always generous with their time in helping nonprofits in this area.
We’d love to hear from you. If you’ve tried any of these strategies, share your story in the comments below.