Similar to the topic of my earlier post about lobbying, there are also restrictions on nonprofits being involved in political campaigns. Most immediately, nonprofits may not take action on behalf of, or in opposition to, a candidate running for political office. Financial contributions and “public statements…on behalf of the organization” are prohibited and jeopardize the organization’s tax-exempt status, in addition to risking excise taxes.
This does not mean nonprofits can’t do anything during an election season. Organizations can engage in nonpartisan activities, such as encouraging people to vote and educating people about candidates who are running. Some examples include encouraging people to register to vote, hosting a forum or debate with candidates running for office, or putting out voter guides describing where candidates stand on issues. These activities must be impartial and can’t favor or disfavor any of the candidates. If any candidate is invited to speak or appear at an event hosted by the organization in his or her capacity as a candidate, all other candidates must also be given comparable opportunities to speak at similar events.
Nonprofits should be careful about sites they link to on their website. Websites are a form of communication on behalf of the organization. Messages in favor of or opposed to a candidate on the organization’s own website is prohibited, but linking to another site expressing a stance on a candidate can also be a risk, depending on the circumstances.
These restrictions apply to the organization as an entity, and not to the individuals who work at the organization. Individuals can support or oppose candidates outside of work. To prevent confusion, leaders and senior staff are encouraged to clarify that they are acting or speaking on their own behalf and not representing the views of their organization.
Campaign activity is distinguished from lobbying. Nonprofits are allowed to do a limited amount of lobbying but may not engage in any amount of prohibited campaign activity. Organizations can take stances on issues of public policy but should do this in a way that does not encourage their constituents to vote for or against a particular candidate.
The IRS takes into consideration surrounding circumstances of actions taken by a nonprofit when it determines if the organization has taken part in campaign activities. This article goes into detail about several activities and gives examples for each to draw out what is and is not allowed.