Nonprofits, especially those that receive public funding, are in a precarious position during election cycles. They need to know the do’s and don’ts of what is allowed in dealing with elections, candidates running for office (any office), and issues that may be at play in an election.
There’s been a lot of change in philanthropy lately. Major new funders are entering the scene on a regular basis, regional and local giving is on the rise, and fallout from the 2016 election has led to important changes in how some funders operate. As we often report, many foundations and donors have swung behind efforts to push back against Donald Trump’s agenda. Others are making grants to help register and mobilize new voters, especially in communities of color and younger demographics. Money is also flowing for journalism to investigate Trump, his administration, and his family business.
Whoever said “Good things come to those who wait” has never advocated for a cause, shepherded a policy through the legislative process, or run a nonprofit organization. That’s especially true if your nonprofit’s mission is issue-driven, and it’s even more true now, when political upheaval in the Trump era and a looming election put the future of many organizations’ missions in question — whether those missions are related to the arts, science and technology, feeding the homeless, fighting for workers’ rights, or another worthy cause. This year, sitting out legislative policy fights is just not an option.
The panel was held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and was moderated by William Schambra of the Hudson Institute. Our featured panelists included Gara LaMarche of the Democracy Alliance, Abby Levine of Alliance for Justice, and David Keating of the Institute for Free Speech.
A petition drive to recall La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt raised questions last week about where it is legal to collect signatures. A signing station was set up Thursday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031, a nonprofit, near 15th Street and Main Avenue. Almost immediately, a handful of residents singled out the station at the VFW because it is a nonprofit, and they questioned if nonprofits are allowed to accommodate such political activity or if doing so violates their federal tax status.
When does a charitable donation become a bribe? San Francisco’s Ethics Commission has recommended new legislation to the Board of Supervisors in an effort to answer the question, as part of a new Anti-Corruption Ordinance. It promises to be the strictest regulations in the state overseeing behested payments – donations made by third parties, at the request of a public official, to a government project or charitable organization.
Under its lobbying ordinance, Los Angeles requires people who are paid to try to influence city officials on municipal legislation to register and turn in regular reports on their spending.
In its 2015 Parks v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue decision (now on appeal), the United States Tax Court found that a series of radio ads funded by the Parks Foundation between 1997 and 2000 conveyed information and commentary relevant to various Oregon state ballot measures and, accordingly, were subject to excise taxes under Internal Revenue Code prohibitions against foundation expenditures for lobbying activities and expenditures — notwithstanding the fact that several of the ads never mentioned a specific ballot measure.
The federal tax law is very strict on the issue of political campaigning. A 501(c)(3) organization is absolutely forbidden to directly or indirectly participate in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for elective public office.
This is not the time to sit back. This is not the time to be shy. And while it may require us to push back against things that are being proposed by our leaders, this is not about partisanship or a particular political view. It’s about an essential understanding of the role of nonprofits in society, what our work means to this country and the people we serve, and how all of that is affected by the decisions that our elected officials make and the policies they enact.