How political can a nonprofit get?

We are not lawyers, so this is not to be construed as legal advice, but many nonprofits find themselves tempted to side with a political candidate or cause. They do this for obvious reasons. First, nonprofits have missions and often those missions cross over into the political arena. Sometimes laws will either allow or disallow a nonprofit from carrying on their work.

But any 501 c 3 organization knows, or should know, that it is prohibited from being a political vehicle. Because it takes advantage of tax-exempt status, it is mandated to function for the “public good.” And they are not permitted to determine what the public good is or what it means.

Hence the quandry. We have had many nonprofit clients hold galas and all of a sudden a political candidate will pop in to meet the crowd and some even want to say a few words. Even gala attendees are voters, and if a candidate can align him or herself with a cause, they will go for it.

On the line is not the candidate, but the organization. If an organization invites a candidate to express their political positions, they are smart to also give their opponent the same opportunity.

It is also important to remember that there is a difference between a tax-exempt organization from giving a candidate a platform, and endorsing a candidate. Once there is an endorsement, then it becomes an entirely different situation.

Most nonprofits are aware of this IRS rule and play it smart and legal. Some, on the other hand, believe nobody will know and they are so small nobody will care, even the government.

We say, why take a chance. Regardless of how close an executive director or CEO of a not for profit organization is, when election season comes, run it by your lawyers and play it safe.