What Nonprofit Staff Can(‘t) Do: Political Activities On and Off the Clock

Last Thursday, we held a webinar on what nonprofit staff can and cannot do when it comes to political activities. If you missed the webinar, you can now watch the recording on our YouTube channel and download both the PowerPoint presentation and audio MP3.

Thank you to everyone who attended and thank you, especially, to those of you who asked questions! And thank you to Attorney David Levitt of Adler and Colvin who fielded those questions, including some real toughies. Our favorite had to be, “What do you do if your employer reimburses you for part of the cost of your personal phone, because you use it for work. But you also use that phone to make calls for your candidate?” The short answer is that you and your employer are fine, although in an ideal world, you’d have a separate phone for work.

One of the most requested items for the webinar was a sample policy that nonprofits can use to inform staff about what they can and cannot do. Fortunately, Bolder Advocacy has a blog post with some sample language here.

We weren’t able to answer every question. In particular, many audience members had questions about what their nonprofit could do. As promised, here are those questions and their answers.

Q: Can my 501(c)(3) nonprofit coordinate with candidates for nonpartisan offices like city council?

A: No! The prohibition on partisan activities states your nonprofit may not support or oppose a candidate for office, regardless of whether the office is filled by a partisan or nonpartisan election.

Q: What do we do if someone asks us who to vote for or which party to register with?

A: You can honestly tell people that your not permitted to talk about that. You can also suggest that people check candidates’ or parties’ websites. Wikipedia is a great resource. If this is an issue that comes up frequently, you can keep a list of websites and phone numbers for candidates and the local or state parties on hand and pass that on to voters.

Q: What happens if my nonprofit holds an event and a staff member’s spouse, who is running for office, stops by the event?

A: As long as you advise and take some reasonable measure to ensure that the staff member’s spouse does not campaign or fund raise while at the event, you’re fine.

Q: What are examples of nonpartisan GOTV activities?

A: Talking to your clients about the election in the days and weeks leading up to Election Day or the early voting period; posting signs in your office with information about voting, e.g. the election date, time polls open and close, a phone number people can call for help; calling voters to remind them to vote; sending voters a postcard with the location of their polling place, and the time the polls open and close; holding up signs at an intersection that say ‘vote today!’; offering rides to the polls – these are all activities you can do on a nonpartisan basis. But it has to be nonpartisan. So, for example, you couldn’t suggest to the people you speak to that a they voter for against a candidate or party, nor could you offer rides to the polls to just Democrats, or call up or mail a postcard to just a list of registered Republicans. If you’re contacting your clients generally, or community members generally, or contacting people whom you have previously registered or pledged to vote, that’s fine.

Nonprofit VOTE has some factsheets and other materials that might be helpful in sorting out what staff and nonprofits can do:

  • Nonprofits, Voting and Elections Online – This is our online guide to remaining nonpartisan while conducting voter outreach activities as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
  • What Nonprofit Staff Can Do – A factsheet on nonprofit staff political activities on and off the clock.
  • What Nonprofit Staff Can Say about the Election – A factsheet on what a nonprofit staff person can say about an election to a client or community member
  • Bolder Advocacy – Bolder Advocacy is a program of the Alliance for Justice. They are a wonderful source of information on nonprofit voter engagement and lobbying. They’re team of attorneys have prepared dozens of factsheets on everything from responding to a candidate’s factually incorrect statement to preparing a candidate questionnaire.
  • 1-800-NPLOBBY – Bolder Advocacy’s hotline for nonprofits seeking legal advice about advocacy and civic engagement

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