Nonprofit organizations are facing some delicate decisions over how far they and their staff can go in RNC protests and other election-year activities. Opposing the Republican party publicly could threaten their tax-exempt status. But taking no stance could waste a key opportunity for advocacy—or hurt staff morale.
The Internal Revenue Service Code 501(c)(3), under which most nonprofits are registered, prohibits them from partisan political activities. It also limits nonprofits’ expenditures to influence legislation through lobbying to an “insubstantial” portion of an agency’s budget. But legal experts say these don’t constitute a ban on free speech.
“Simply because the Republicans are coming to town does not mean you have to shut up,” said Sean Delany, executive director of Lawyers Alliance for New York, which advises nonprofits: “You do have to be careful about how your go about articulating your positions.”
The Lawyers Alliance held a workshop earlier this month to spell out some nonprofit dos and don’ts:
• Identify your organization’s position on issues, but don’t identify political candidates’ positions.
• When you invite candidates to events or provide mailing lists, offer them to all candidates, regardless of party.
• Before any candidates comes to your event, write them a letter explaining that this is not campaign stop and they cannot talk about the election. While they might break their promise, this letter would save you from responsibility.
• Employees are allowed to work on campaigns, but only on their own time.
• Avoid linking your website to the site for a partisan issue or campaign.
Of course, there are also gray areas. Giving your staff a day off during the week to protest at the RNC may be dodgy, for example. But quietly encouraging them to attend a weekend gathering may be relatively safe.
After consulting legal experts, the ICNA Relief, a Muslim humanitarian organization based in Queens, decided not to endorse any anti-Bush protests. But it won’t rule out the possibility that some members may protest individually. “Our volunteers are very eager,” said Adem Carroll, the group’s relief coordinator. “It’s too bad if we are being scared away.” [8/30]