FNA encourages nonprofits to be involved in advocacy and lobbying activities, as permitted by the law. But when it comes to elections, there are some things that are not legal for nonprofits to do, and others that will need to be handled with caution.
According to The Johnson Amendment to the US Tax Code (1954), “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.”
In addition to following the law, it is also vitally important for 501(c)(3) organizations to be seen as unbiased and non-partisan in their work. Your organization will have to work with whoever is elected, so you don’t want to burn any bridges before an individual even takes office. It’s also important to maintain the trust that the public has in nonprofit organizations, ensures that all clients and stakeholders feel welcomed at our organizations, and focuses your organization’s resources on what matters most – your mission. Florida is consistently considered to be a swing state, and your mission should not only be supported by one side or the other.
If you are a 501(c)(3) public charity:
501(c)(3) organization should never do the following:
- Endorse candidates (explicit or implicit)
- Give money to a candidate, political party, or PAC
- Rate or rank candidates on who is most favorable to your issue(s)
The following activities are allowed by 501(c)(3) organizations:
- Voter registration activities - These should all be conducted in a non-partisan manner.
- Get-out-the vote efforts - This includes ride to the polls programs.They should all be conducted in a non-partisan manner.
- Voter education activities - This includes information about the voting process, candidate forums, and the publication of voter education guides, carried out in a non-partisan manner.
- Attend candidate events - When you are attending on behalf of the nonprofit organization, ask the same questions related to your mission of each candidate in the race.Make sure your questions do not imply a “correct” answer.
- Share policy or research with all candidates equally
- Take a position on ballot measures or referenda
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
If your organization is going to engage with the following, please be careful:
- 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 a legislative vote or decision so that it can’t be construed as being related to the election.If it is an issue that distinguishes the candidates (i.e. they have been campaigning on opposing sides of the issue), you’ll want to steer clear of it.
- Participate in or co-sponsor events or programs that are closely aligned with a particular political party - Some topics and events are more closely associated with one political party or the other (e.g. National March for Life, Indivisible Groups).Although there may not be a direct association with a candidate or political party, therefore it may not be expressly prohibited, it is important to remember that perception of 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 to question.
- Rent your facility to a candidate or political party for a private event - This is allowed only if it is a normal activity for your organization; the space is rented on a first-come, first-served basis; and the candidate or political party pays the normal fees you would charge anyone else.
Still not clear on what is legal?
Check out the answers below to some of the most Frequently Asked Questions we get about elections.
Can I personally support a candidate or get involved with campaigning?
Yes! You can even run for office yourself! Just be very sure any campaign activity you do is on your own time with your own resources – don’t send emails related to campaigns from your work email address, don’t use your work phone or supplies from the office, don’t represent your organization while campaigning, and keep your campaign activities outside of work hours and official work events.
Why are nonprofits allowed to take a position on ballot measures, but not candidates?
Because ballot measures are a type of legislation, and 501(c)(3) organizations are generally allowed to lobby on legislative issues. In the case of ballot measures, the general voting public is the decision maker, therefore nonprofits are legally allowed to work for or against the measures.
What should our organization do if a candidate asks to attend and/or speak at an event we are hosting?
If the event is open to the public, candidates would also be allowed to attend but should not use the opportunity to campaign or distribute campaign materials. If the candidate is invited and/or speaking because of a different role they have (an incumbent who has expertise on a topic related to the event who happens to also be running for re-election, a significant fundraiser being recognized for their contributions to the organization, etc.), it is generally allowed, as long as both the candidate and organization make no mention of the campaign or election. If the event is related to voter education, a candidate is permitted to attend and speak, as long as all candidates in that race are afforded equal opportunities to do so and the candidate is not limited in the topics he or she can address.
Can we recognize an elected official who is running for re-election at our program or event?
Yes, but stay away from acknowledgement of the campaign or election. It’s a good idea to keep the acknowledgement short and simple to avoid the appearance of endorsing their re-election campaign.
What do we need to consider if we are going to host a candidate forum?
The first step is to be sure you invite all viable candidates in the race to participate. Secondly, select a moderator that will stay neutral and not imply approval or disapproval of any candidate. Make sure the forum covers a broad range of issues, not just the ones most important to your organization. Each candidate should get the same questions and equal time to address them.
Want more information or have specific questions you would like answered?
Register for the next FNA Advocacy 101 training or contact us at email@example.com.
For more information, we recommend the following resources:
This web page does not constitute legal advice. If you have questions about your organization and the upcoming elections, we recommend you seek legal counsel.