Opportunities for Nonpartisan Digital Advocacy in an Election Year
In the midst of a worldwide pandemic and a movement for Black lives, nonprofits and their community partners continue to look for ways to stand up and speak out about racial, social, and economic inequities.
Social distancing guidelines and shelter-in-place orders mean that social media and other digital channels are increasingly important tools in a nonprofit’s advocacy toolbox. Whether it’s to push for police accountability, immigrant rights, criminal justice, or universal healthcare, digital advocacy is an important way to create policy and other systemic change. In addition, changes in the voting process mean that, more than ever, nonprofits have a duty as trusted messengers to help people participate in the democratic process.
In an election year, staff and volunteers working on behalf of 501(c)(3) public charities, including their fiscally-sponsored project partners, may be exploring ways they can fight for causes without jeopardizing their tax-exempt statuses.
Fortunately, even though charities are not permitted to support or oppose candidates for elected public office, charities have myriad options for legal and effective advocacy online.
Raise Awareness and Push for Policy Change.
Organizations can use social media and in-person activities together to amplify a message, as the All* Above All campaign did with the EACH Woman Act1. The campaign used tweetstorms with a coordinated Periscope livestream, asked celebrities and influencers to use their platforms, and shared bold graphics to push for reproductive healthcare. A coalition of nonprofits in Alabama used Facebook to post census-related information to undercounted populations, but they also leveraged radio, video, and billboard signage as well, to reduce the risk of missing any audiences that may not have had reliable internet access.
501(c)(3)s must be careful not to share or link to partisan content, which generally means content that supports or opposes candidates or political parties. A charity may be responsible for any content it “likes‟ or “retweets‟ or whenever it in some way shares or amplifies the content of others — in the same way, it would be responsible if it distributed a partner nonprofit’s flier about its activities. A charity needs to consider why it is retweeting or resharing a post, and how it connects to the organization’s charitable purpose since a charity cannot do indirectly what it cannot do directly. If a charity communicates via its own pages on social media platforms (e.g., Instagram, TikTok), which carry its name and goodwill, the charity is responsible for the content appearing on these pages.
1 Generally, attempting to influence specific legislation is considered lobbying under IRS rules. 501(c)(3) public charities may lobby, but must stay within IRS lobbying limits and must report any lobbying to the IRS. For more information, please review Public Charities Can Lobby.
Criticize or Praise Elected Officials.
It is possible for 501(c)(3)s to praise or criticize elected officials for actions they’ve taken. For example, in addition to pursuing litigation, the Texas Civil Rights project spoke out repeatedly and consistently against state officials’ efforts to purge voters from voting rolls. Charities should be careful not to support or oppose the reelection campaign of elected officials, and to stay focused on the issues involved or the policies supported, rather than the elected official’s leadership qualities or fitness for office.
Encourage People to Vote or Register to Vote.
501(c)(3)s can register voters or encourage people to vote as long as they don’t express a preference for or against a particular party or specific candidate or candidates. For example, in 2018, groups like AltaMed, National Network for Arab American Communities, and the Chinese Progressive Association – San Francisco worked to mobilize communities with whom they had historical ties. If sharing information on who is running, share nonpartisan voter guides or at least neutral, factual information. If a charity creates nonpartisan content (e.g., a unique hashtag such as #VotingTuesday), it is not responsible for someone using the content for a partisan purpose without the charity’s knowledge or consent. Monitoring your social media, having an organizational election policy, and training your staff and volunteers about the applicable legal rules are best practices.
Make it Clear Which Hat You’re Wearing Online.
501(c)(3) employees and volunteers are often personally engaged in the political and democratic process and may even support candidates in their free time. It is important for legal reasons to distinguish between your personal and work activities. Use disclaimers when you are communicating in your personal capacity and not on behalf of your organization. For example, simple disclaimers like “Tweets are my own” can help show that social media posts are not intended to represent the views of your employer.
On organizational accounts, to reduce the likelihood of having comments attributed to the organization, a charity should include a prominent disclaimer on its social media profiles stating that the views expressed are those of the people making the comments and not necessarily those of the charity and that the charity is nonpartisan and does not support or oppose any candidates for public office.
For more guidelines on legal rules that impact nonprofit advocacy, please see Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy website and the publication Influencing Public Policy in the Digital Age. You can also contact Bolder Advocacy for technical assistance via email (email@example.com) or phone (1-866-NP-LOBBY). Stay safe!