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Oct 29, 2010

How a Nonprofit Should Participate in an Election

With November elections just around the corner, nonprofits need to keep several things in mind. Your nonprofit is defined by its mission, which should be passionate (and oftentimes emotional). As nonprofits seek to advance their mission, involvement in governmental affairs is a very realistic strategy.

Passions rise during election season and well-intentioned nonprofit leaders and trustees can get their organizations into trouble. For 501(c)(3) organizations specifically, the IRS makes it clear that nonprofits are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” Any violation could result in denial or revocation of your tax-exempt status. So, how should your nonprofit participate? The Legal Issues section of More Than Just Money devotes two separate chapters to elections and lobbying activities by nonprofits. Here are three strategies I discuss in the book:

  • Voter education, registration and get-out-the-vote efforts

Encourage people to vote and aid them in registering to vote. Remember not to emphasize or favor a particular candidate or political party.

  • Activity by nonprofit leaders

Nonprofit leaders can have and express opinions regarding candidates for office. However, this permission requires that there be no explicit or implicit association of the person’s view with the nonprofit organization.

  • Candidate forums and appearances

Nonprofits are often very logical places for group events and many have speakers and public events in which acknowledging the presence of community leaders is customary. Recognizing a public official is permissible if no reference is made by the nonprofit or the official to the individual’s candidacy for election.

Because of the complex details of the law, many nonprofits choose to remain silent during an election campaign. That’s unnecessary, but it is vital that the organization become familiar with the rules and resources the IRS makes available. For more information on nonprofit participation during election season, visit Read more on this subject in More Than Just Money, which includes helpful information about legal issues.