Elections and Legislation: What a 501(1)(c)(3) Nonprofit Corporation Can Say – and What It Can’t Under Federal Law

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Federal law places some limits on the ability of 501(1)(c)(3) nonprofit corporations to involve themselves in politics. Agencies that are exempt from tax under 501(1)(c)(3) must focus their resources on educational, religious, scientific, or other charitable activities. In addition, although nonprofit agencies can engage in some degree of involvement in politics through lobbying, they are prohibited from any political activity that concerns the elections of candidates for public office. Violating these strict rules on political activity can lead to the loss of 501(1)(c)(3) tax-exempt status.

Lobbying

Lobbying includes any activities undertaken to influence Congress or a state or local legislature. Another aspect of lobbying is supporting or opposing ballot measures. 501(1)(c)(3) nonprofit corporations may lobby as an “insubstantial” part of their total activities. Alternatively, public charities that elect for an exception to this may lobby to a greater extent under a complex set of rules.

Engaging in Political Activity

A 501(1)(c)(3) nonprofit corporation that engages in any political activity, no matter how little, by using its resources will violate its tax-exempt status. Under no circumstances can the nonprofit officially or unofficially support or oppose a candidate for political office. Some examples of political activity that would violate a nonprofit’s tax-exempt status include:

  • The nonprofit posting an endorsement of a local candidate for city council on its Facebook page
  • The executive director of the nonprofit posting support for a candidate for governor on the nonprofit’s blog.
  • A nonprofit employee using her work email account to send out emails soliciting support for a mayoral candidate or her work phone to make calls on behalf of the candidate.

The IRS considers the online activities of a nonprofit to be communications, just as mail, phone calls, radio interviews, speeches, and TV ads are communications. Therefore, nonprofits need to ensure that none of their communications, including their online communications, contain any prohibited political activity.  

Websites

Most, if not all, nonprofit organizations have their own websites, as the Internet is a primary source of information and communication for millions of people worldwide. As a result, nonprofits must ensure that their websites do not contain any information or communications that could be seen as engaging in prohibited political activity. In determining whether the nonprofit engaged in prohibited political activity, the IRS will examine the nonprofit organization’s website as a whole rather than considering a single webpage or statement.

Furthermore, nonprofits are responsible for the content of their own websites and any web links posted on their websites. Nonprofit organizations may not link directly to websites, including political content supporting or opposing candidates for public office. The IRS will examine the content of the linked website and decide whether the nonprofit is using the link to promote, encourage, or recommend that viewers use the link to get information about specific candidates and their views on particular issues.

However, a nonprofit organization may link to an unbiased, nonpartisan voter guide that satisfies all IRS rules concerning voter guides. Additionally, multiple clicks between a nonprofit’s website and a website containing political material can create a “safe harbor” for the nonprofit. Nonetheless, the IRS has not explicitly defined how many clicks are necessary for the political material to be remote enough from the nonprofit’s website to not count as prohibited political activity for the nonprofit.

Social Media

Due to the reliance of today’s world on social media, most nonprofit corporations also have a social media presence, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram accounts, and more. One hallmark of social media platforms is the ability to “share” posts or “retweet” tweets from other sources.

Nonprofit corporations should understand that just as they cannot directly engage in prohibited political activity, they cannot indirectly engage in prohibited political activity. Therefore, they cannot share another organization or person’s posts announcing election endorsements. Likewise, they cannot direct individuals to another group’s website or Facebook post for candidate or election endorsements.

Contact Us Today for Legal Assistance Church Law Center gears its practice to legal matters that affect nonprofit organizations, churches, and other religious organizations. This focus allows us to concentrate our efforts on keeping abreast of the ever-changing laws and policies as they develop over time. We are here to represent your interests throughout every stage of your legal matter. Call us today at (949) 245-3177 or visit us online and see what we can do for you.

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