How 501c3s can use elections to build political power
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How 501c3s can use elections to build political power



Most 501c3 charities assume they can't do anything related to elections. While they can't support or oppose candidates, they can engage in many election activities that will further their mission. ...

Most 501c3 charities assume they can't do anything related to elections. While they can't support or oppose candidates, they can engage in many election activities that will further their mission. Learn some basics about what you can do and more importantly, what are some of the strategic considerations involved.



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How 501c3s can use elections to build political power Presentation Transcript

  • 1. Elections and your 501c3 Tax Status
    Presented at the River Rally
    May 2010
  • 2. More About Me
    After 12 years running the Oregon League of Conservation Voters and OLCV Education Fund
    Launched consulting practice last fall.
    Focus areas are:
    Strategic Planning
    Coalition building
    Special knowledge of 501c3s and election rules/strategy.
    I do have a law degree, but I’m not going to give you detailed legal advice.
  • 3. Two basic questions
    What can you legally do as a 501c3 around elections?
    Given what’s legal, how can you use elections to build power for your organization?
  • 4. Covering three topics
    What you definitely can’t do
    What you can do
    Why you might want to do these things
  • 5. What you can’t do
    “may not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
  • 6. In plain english . . .
    Can’t support or oppose a
    candidate for public office.
  • 7. What is public office?
    Any election.
    Dog catcher
    Everything in between
    Ballot measures are NOT covered. They’re treated as lobbying, which is a whole different workshop.
  • 8. Who’s a candidate
    Declared candidate
    Candidate in exploratory stage
    “Draft” a candidate effort
  • 9. What is support or oppose?
    Not just giving money or lending your organizational name (endorsement).
    Any action that under all the facts & circumstances the IRS concludes is meant to help or hurt a specific candidate or set of candidates.
  • 10. Penalty for breaking the law?
  • 11. So how do you know what you can do?
    IRS guidelines for what you can do
    No time to do an exhaustive review, which could take all day.
    Alliance for Justice has the best, easy to understand guidebook
    Will focus on a handful of key examples
  • 12. Four areas I’ll cover
    Issue advocacy
    Voter registration
    Voter education
    Activities of individuals
  • 13. Issue advocacy
    It often involves saying positive or negative things about an elected official running for reelection or higher office.
    You don’t have to stop doing your issue advocacy just because of an election.
    Corrollary: You shouldn’t do your issue advocacy just because there is an election.
  • 14. Types of issue advocacy
    Lobbying – Vote Yes on Bill X.
    Criticizing incumbents’ positions – Governor Jones should stop cutting funding for river protection . . .
    Public – regular, all members, broad range of issues, no commentary
    For members. Regular, all members, narrow range of issues, commentary.
    Candidate education
    Offer it to everyone if anyone
    Use only info you already have in hand. Don’t create info at a candidate’s request even if you share it with others.
  • 15. IRS uses “facts & circumstances” test
    Good facts & circumstances
    If part of a pattern of issue advocacy that existed prior to the election season.
    If only refer to them in their elected official position
    Language doesn’t match the candidate’s campaign materials
    Bad facts & circumstances
    If only do around the election time.
    If refer to their candidacy.
    If language matches candidate’s message (unless can show you were using it first)
  • 16. Voter Registration
    No reference to who they should vote for
    No preference by political party
    Make available to everyone
    Target population/geography for nonpartisan reasons
    Can’t use code words to couch preference – IRS has said “Vote Pro-Choice, Register to Vote” is code for Democratic at this point.
    “Environment” is probably not code for party, but may be in some elections. No direct IRS ruling on it. So would want to know more about the context.
  • 17. Voter Education
    Candidate questionnaires
    Appearances unrelated to candidacy.
  • 18. Test: “fact and circumstances”
    Just like with issue advocacy, IRS will look at all facts & circumstances to determine if you were really doing something to help or hurt a specific candidate or party.
    They’ve laid out some guidelines for safe facts & circumstances for different types of voter education.
  • 19. Candidate questionnaires
    Open-ended questions (but should have word count or character count limit)
    Distributed to all candidates
    Broad range of issues
    No pledges to vote for or against something
    No editing of their responses
    Present responses formatted equally
    Disclaimer that not supporting/opposing anybody
  • 20. Candidate debates/forums
    Broad range of issues. Not clear how broad. Environment probably broad enough, but river probably not.
    Invite all viable candidates. Can exclude those polling low as long as rational basis identified before hand.
    Impartial moderator.
    Unbiased audience selection.
    Equal opportunity to talk.
    No contextual favoritism.
  • 21. Appearances unrelated to election
    Invite sitting officeholder to event in their office capacity.
    Awards as an example, or a policy update
    No equal opportunity required
    Avoid mentioning candidacy. Must tell that to the candidate too!
    Don’t time to closely coincide with the election
    Disclaimer in writing to the candidate to be safe.
  • 22. What about individuals?
  • 23. You can participate as individuals
    You don’t lose your rights as an individual just because you are staff or on the board of a 501c3 nonprofit.
    Bottom line rules for organizations:
    Can do elections in personal capacity.
    Not on organizational time/resources.
    Organization can’t ratify activities.
    Have a written policy if possible (e.g. it’s okay to do this, but don’t use work email or resources). AFJ has an example of their policy.
  • 24. For more information on the law
    Best source = Alliance for Justice.
    Nonprofit Voter Engagement Network,
  • 25. Why do any of this?
    Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do it!
    For me, the first question to answer is: what is your theory of change?
  • 26. Possible theories of change for a river protection group
    Change requires litigation to enforce existing river protection laws.
    Change requires more data to document river health problems.
    Change requires a better educated citizenry who’ll fight to protect the river.
    Change requires elected officials to recognize the importance of river protection.
    Change requires elected official to have better information about what’s needed for river protection.
  • 27.
  • 28. Which activities to choose?
    Issue education?
    Other methods?
    Depends on your theory of change!
  • 29. Match up the strategy to your theory of change
  • 30. Match up the strategy to your theory of change
  • 31. Match up the strategy to your theory of change
  • 32. Match up the strategy to your theory of change
  • 33. Match up the strategy to your theory of change
  • 34. Match up the strategy to your theory of change
  • 35. If more than one makes sense, how decide which?
    No obvious answer.
    But I’d ask the following questions:
    Which is most synergistic with my other programs?
    Which builds my capacity by involving volunteers, helping with fundraising, or building the organization’s reputation in the community?
  • 36. Follow up questions?