Nonprofit organizations exempt from tax under Section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code — schools, religious groups, hospitals, social service providers, and other public charities — should be careful not to violate the law’s prohibition on political campaign activities.
Participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, a candidate for public office is absolutely prohibited, whether it’s done directly or indirectly. This restriction applies across the board to campaigns of candidates running for national, state, or local public office.
- Examples of prohibited political campaign activities include:
- Endorsing a candidate
- Donating to a candidate’s campaign
- Allowing a candidate to make a campaign speech at an organization-sponsored event
- Allowing a candidate to use an organization’s assets or facilities if other candidates are not given an equivalent opportunity
- Distributing materials that favor or oppose a candidate (whether the statements are prepared by others or by the organization)
- Posting comments about a candidate on the organization’s website or maintaining a link to only one candidate’s profile on the site
An organization may educate voters as long as it’s done in a nonpartisan, unbiased way. For example, organizations may prepare and distribute voter education guides or hold public forums. But all candidates seeking the same office should have an equal opportunity to be represented or participate. Neutrality — in content, wording, questioning, issues for discussion, etc. — is key.
Board members and other leaders of an organization may, of course, hold their own political views. But when they express those views, they should make it abundantly clear they are speaking for themselves, not on behalf of the organization. Leaders should avoid making political statements at organization meetings. Similarly, the organization’s resources or publications should not be used to express political views.
A charity may conduct educational activities regarding public policy issues of importance to its mission, including issues that divide candidates in an election for public office. However, messages that could be construed as political campaign intervention should be avoided.
Failure To Comply
Violating the prohibition on political campaign activities can result in revocation of an organization’s tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.
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