The prohibition against partisan activities by 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations is defined in the federal tax code by a single statement that says that nonprofit organizations defined as 501(c)(3) charities may not conduct partisan political activities in support of or opposition to a candidate running for public office. In other words, 501(c)(3) nonprofits must remain nonpartisan. Whether activities are considered partisan depends on the “facts and circumstances” of the activity.
Prohibited Partisan Activities
This prohibition against partisan activities is generally known to mean that 501(c)(3) nonprofits may not:
- Endorse or oppose a candidate running for public office.
- Make a campaign contribution to or expenditure for or against a candidate.
- Rate candidates on who is most favorable to your issue.
- Let candidates use the organization’s facilities or resources, unless those resources are made equally available to all candidates at their fair market value.
Q: Can we criticize a candidate’s statements?
There is always some risk of appearing partisan when a 501(c)(3) organization applauds or criticizes candidates or their statements or proposals. The risk is greatest in the months just before an election and when making references to the election or someone’s candidacy. Your nonprofit’s comments are more likely to be viewed as nonpartisan when they are made in the context of a pending legislative vote or are part of the organization’s long history of such comments on the issue (even in non-election years). Make sure what you say relates to pending government action on an issue of concern to your organization and is not intended to sway the outcome of an election.
Q: What does it mean to rank or rate a candidate?
Anything that indicates which candidates you think are better or worse on your issues could be seen as a partisan endorsement. This would include things like giving candidates letter grades (A, B, C, etc.), but even commentary that compares candidates’ views to yours is a problem. Take, for example, a voter guide you create to publicize where candidates stand on an issue that also includes your organization’s position on the issue. This would tell the voter which candidates you believe gave the “correct” answer. When you circulate or publicize a nonpartisan guide giving candidate positions, keep your opinion out of it. Let voters use the information presented to make their own decisions.
Q: What about issuing an annual legislative scorecard – is that election related?
A Legislative Scorecard that grades incumbents on their voting record is different. A scorecard that reports and rates how incumbent legislators vote is public information. If you publicize it close to an election, only do so if it’s the normal time you do this, and it is not done specifically to influence the outcome of the election.
Q: What about candidates running in a nonpartisan election. Does the same prohibition apply?
Yes. The prohibition applies in all types of public elections including “nonpartisan elections “ that are held in many municipal, school or judicial jurisdictions where candidates compete as individuals regardless of party affiliation and without official party support.
Permissible Nonpartisan Activities
Being nonpartisan does not mean non-participation. The IRS states that 501(c)(3) organizations may conduct any range of activities to promote voter participation, educate voters or connect with candidates so long as it is nonpartisan. The remainder of this guide discusses the many ways nonprofits can engage voters and talk to candidates – so long as they do so on a nonpartisan basis.
For example, 501(c)(3) nonprofits may –
- Conduct or Promote Voter Registration
- Educate Voters on the Voting Process
- Distribute Nonpartisan Sample Ballots, Candidate Questionnaires, or Voter Guides
- Organize Get-Out-the-Vote Activities
- Encourage and Help People to Vote
- Host or Co-Sponsor a Candidate Forum
- Educate the Candidates on Your Issues
- Continue to do Issue Advocacy During an Election
Staff and volunteers should be nonpartisan when working for or representing the organization. However, “off the clock” or on personal time, they are free to do partisan work for a candidate or party. (See fact sheet on What Nonprofit Staff Can Do)
- Visit the Staying Nonpartisan section of Nonprofit VOTE’s Voter Engagement Resource Library