Know the rules: Nonprofits in an election year

2012: A leap year. The year the world might end. And of course, an election year, with something on the ballot in every city and state in the U.S. I’ve found that folks who work for social change tend to pay close attention to politics and elections – which makes it extra important that nonprofit professionals know what the rules are about how agencies, staffs, and volunteers can be engaged in politics.

How do the rules apply to you?

First of all, it matters what kind of a nonprofit you work or volunteer with.

  • For 501(c)(3)s in the U.S., the election rules are pretty simple: such organizations must not do anything that furthers, or hinders, the chances of election of any candidate for any public office. Charitable resources must not be used for political contributions of any sort.
  • Other sorts of organizations have many more opportunities to get involved in the political process than c3s, but even they must be careful not to step over the lines in federal, state and local rules. Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code is the reference point for foundations and other public charities. State and local laws may make further, different distinctions, so any organization which might get involved in politics in any way will need to check those too.

What makes this complicated?

Nothing about that flat prohibition on “electioneering” says that nonprofits cannot work to improve democracy. They can encourage people to vote, help to clarify issues, and make known their own views on policy goals. They just have to do these things in a way that is impartial among the candidates who are running for office.

What you can and can’t do published Nonprofits, Voting & Elections: An online guide to nonpartisan voter participation activities for 501(c)(3) organizations, which can help your nonprofit’s board and executives understand the ins and outs of doing business in an election year.

But what about volunteers and staff members? Does any of this apply to them as they go about their daily routines? Yes and no:

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    Photo: Sonya Green, Flickr/Creative Commons

    Whenever people are representing a nonprofit in any official capacity, they have to make sure that they steer clear of that prohibition on electioneering. That certainly means avoiding doing anything that might be seen as the nonprofit itself endorsing one candidate, or dissing another…

  • But employees and volunteers don’t give up their rights as citizens. They can do things—on the job and off—that indicate their personal support for a candidate, like having a campaign sign in the window of their own car in the front yard of their house. They can sign petitions, contribute money, and go door-knocking. It’s just that they have to mute their connections to the nonprofit where they work while doing those things.

To learn more, check out these resources from NonprofitVOTE and the Alliance for Justice: What Staff Can Do and Election Activities of Individuals Associated with 501(c)(3) Organizations (PDF).

P.S. Idealist can help!

Want to promote election year events? Recruit Get Out the Vote (GOTV) volunteers? Announce a nonpartisan voter guide? You can use your organization page on Idealist to do all of these things. Get started here.

And comment below to tell us, and others, about your organization’s plans to participate in the democratic process this year.

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