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Do’s and don’ts for nonprofits to navigate during election season

By Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE and Kelly Otte, Notes on Nonprofits

It is election season and that raises some issues for nonprofits. 

According to the IRS, “a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization may not intervene in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

Here are a few do’s and don’ts for 501(c) (3) (C3s) charities regarding elections provided by the Florida Nonprofit Alliance.  

Don’t endorse candidates explicitly or implicitly; give money to a candidate, political party, or political action committee; or rate or rank candidates on who is most favorable on your issue.

Do voter registration activities which should be conducted in a non-partisan manner; get-out-the-vote efforts including ride to the poll programs; and education activities including candidate forums and the publication of voter education guides. Share policy or research with all candidates equally; take a position on ballot measures or referenda; and attend candidate events.

When you are attending on behalf of the nonprofit, ask the same questions related to your mission of each candidate in the race. Make sure your questions do not imply a “correct” answer. Encourage people to vote by providing nonpartisan information about elections. 

Proceed with caution

FNA encourages C3 nonprofits to be careful if you: 

Take a position on a legislative issue close to an election. If you are going to do so, be sure it is an issue that you have previously been involved with and/or is directly related to your mission. It should also be tied to the timing of legislative vote or decision so that it can’t be construed as being related to the election. If it is an issue that candidates have been campaigning on opposing sides of the issue, you’ll want to steer clear of it. 

Participate in events or programs that are closely aligned with a particular political party. Your participation may be interpreted as political support by your clients, donors, volunteers, or others involved with your organization. It is generally better to stay away from activities that put your political neutrality into question. 

Rent your facility to a candidate or political party for a private event, unless it is a normal activity for your organization; the space is rented on a first come, first serve basis; and the candidate or political party pays the normal fees you would charge anyone else. 

For more information, watch FNA’s Election Season Primer.

Risk of jeopardizing nonprofit status

I asked Kelly Otte, founder of this column, to share a few thoughts on this issue. 

Alyce Lee and I started talking about this recently when I received a call asking my opinion about whether it was OK for a C3 nonprofit to ask a political candidate to be their keynote speaker. 

There are two ways to think about this decision. One is the legal concern. The IRS is pretty darn clear that support doesn’t have to be explicit, it can be implicit. If the general donor public could infer the nonprofit is supportive of a candidate, this could jeopardize their nonprofit status.  

The second is related to the goodwill of the community and our obligation as nonprofits to put our mission first. If a nonprofit relies on donor support, they should hit the pause button before asking a political candidate to be their headliner. Having a candidate speak when it’s not related to the mission during campaign season doesn’t make any sense to me. And it certainly doesn’t pass the implicit support smell test.  

Avoid problems of perception

Some nonprofits get tangled up in campaigns without any intention of showing support. An elected official running for re-election hosts a feel-good community event and asks a nonprofit’s singing group to perform and then posts on social media how great it was to have them at the event. A donor who is not supporting the candidate reaches out to the nonprofit and is upset. This is a problem better avoided.

Nonprofit leaders may have candidates they personally like. It’s legal to personally contribute to candidates. You can even legally volunteer in their campaigns. Most C3 leaders I know stay far away from campaigns because of the dreaded political fallout that could come later if your candidate doesn’t win.

Nonprofit executives that run bigger nonprofits, sometimes C3s and typically statewide, who rely on the goodwill of certain elected officials for laws and funding will often contribute money to campaigns. They’ll also throw receptions and give plaques to officials who have done something that benefitted their nonprofit.  All perfectly legal. And always worth a very strong look both ways before crossing that street. 

C3s who have education and advocacy in their missions can host candidate forums or post answers to candidate questionnaires. Be careful to make certain to ask every candidate to attend or fill out a questionnaire.  Ask each candidate the same questions.

The most damaging thing I’ve seen is a C3 Executive Director who sent an email to their team encouraging them to vote for a particular candidate. A staff member filed a complaint with the state attorney. The ED was arrested and convicted. You can’t do that.    

Election season can also be an opportunity for nonprofits which will be addressed in a future column.

Notes on Nonprofits is a column in the Tallahassee Democrat produced by Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, President of Stansbury Consulting, and includes resources, responses to reader questions, guest columns, and timeless topics. This column first appeared on Sunday, September 12, 2022. Please send your comments and questions.

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