Most nonprofits care deeply about particular issues of public policy — issues such as education, housing, the environment or budget priorities that go to the heart of the nonprofit’s mission. The IRS explicitly states that nonprofits may continue lobbying activities during an election: “Under federal tax law, section 501(c)(3) organizations may take positions on public policy issues, including issues that divide candidates in an election for public office.” (Internal Revenue Service, Factsheet 2006 — 17, February 2006.)
However, it is possible that communications on issues during an election could be considered partisan if they appear to be an effort to support or oppose a candidate. There is a greater risk of appearing partisan when you mention the names of candidates or upcoming elections in a communication. As always in evaluating 501(c)(3) activities, there are no bright lines. It depends on the “facts and circumstances”. Here are some basic guidelines.
General Guidelines for Issue Advocacy Leading Up to an Election
- You may continue to lobby or engage in other advocacy activities in the months leading up to an election, but be careful before increasing these advocacy activities during the election season.If you step up your advocacy on a particular issue at the same time that this issue is a key point of disagreement between two or more candidates, it may seem as if you are trying to favor the candidate who most closely shares your organization’s views.
- A history of work on an issue in the past is a key factor in whether advocacy is an effort to influence the outcome of the upcoming election. Your activity is far more likely to be seen as nonpartisan if you have engaged in the same or similar activities in non-election years.
- Responding to an external event is often safer. Frequently, organizations get involved in an issue in response to external events beyond their control — a shelter closing, an imminent vote on a bill in the legislature, etc. This type of external impetus sometimes occurs just before an election. Organizations want to get involved, but may be nervous because the candidates may be talking about the same issue. The external event helps to demonstrate that your organization was not motivated by a desire to influence the election.
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