By Yezdyar S. Kaoosji
There are several types of nonprofits—a term assigned to organizations that are exempt from federal income taxes. In general usage, the term refers to entities classified as “charitable” or 501(c)(3) organizations.
This article is written to help nonprofit leaders, both volunteers and professionals, understand the political activities in which they can and cannot engage.
There are two kinds of political activity.
One refers to advocacy relating to legislation or on a ballot referendum. Within certain budgetary and common-sense issues, there are no major reasons why an organization cannot engage in such a role. Budget refers to usage of funds for advocacy and is generally covered by restrictions on an organization that is a recipient of funds from the government. By common sense, I refer to how closely the issue being advocated falls within the mission of the organization.
The second role is direct participation in the election of candidates for political office. This article is written primarily to help nonprofits understand what they can and cannot do in this regard. Nonprofits cannot endorse or oppose candidates. However, elections do offer nonprofits an opportunity to place their issues in front of all candidates and the voting public. Elections also afford the opportunity to develop working relationships with future elected officials.
Here are some things a nonprofit can do:
- Conduct a candidate survey. Design a survey that addresses your mission and priorities for all candidates in a particular race. Release the responses to the media and publish it on your Web site. Your survey should be a community benefit document that engages all candidates in an issue relevant to your mission. It might be a good idea to collaborate with other nonprofits that share similar values to broaden the community benefit of the survey. The bottom line is to be careful not to endorse any candidate.
- Participate in events organized by candidates. Ask them questions about your organizational priorities. Ensure there is consistency by asking the same questions of all candidates. Ensure you maintain a nonpartisan stance.
- Share your policy agenda. Meet with political leaders and the community throughout the year. Know that during elections candidates want good ideas. If your policy agenda is well thought through and readily available, it is more likely to be adopted by the candidates who agree with your mission and point of view. They may even be inclined to incorporate them in their election platform.
- Invite candidates to events. Make sure that all candidates are invited and treat them equally. Their presence at your event gives them exposure to your clients and constituency. They can be engaged in discussing your priorities and hence become knowledgeable about your concerns.
- Register voters. Nonprofits as trusted community institutions are in contact with the community. This enables them to reach out and register citizens who might be otherwise overlooked. Voter registration activities can range from passive promotion to active engagement. There are certain regulations and restrictions (see the Web sites below).
- Host a candidate gathering. A well-planned and publicized forum where all candidates are invited can position your organization as a thoughtful leader in the community and ensure that your message is included in a public debate. Again, the basic rules prevail. First, invite all candidates to the forum. If a few do not accept your invitation, let the audience know that all were invited. Second, show absolutely no favored status to one candidate over others. Do so by asking everyone the same questions. Third, and most important, no endorsements.
The following resources can guide nonprofits in planning their political role:
- The 2013 CalNonprofits Convention will be held in San Francisco on Nov. 14. Sessions will include political advocacy roles for nonprofits. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich will be the keynote speaker. For details, visit www.calnonprofits.org/component/content/article/10-feature-articles/281.
- IRS: www.irs.gov (Election Year Activities of 501(c)(3) Organizations)
- League of Women Voters: www.lwv.org (FAQs Candidate Forums-Debates)
- Nonprofit Vote: www.nonprofitvote.org
- California Association of Nonprofits: www.calnonprofits.org and www.votewithyourmission.org
- Alliance for Justice: www.bolderadvocacy.org and www.allianceforjustice.org
Yezdyar Kaoosji is a steering committee member of the Progressive Network of Central California and a board member of the California Association of Nonprofits. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nonprofits in the United States
The nonprofit sector in the United States is a major part of our society. Here are a few facts to help understand its massive influence. In 2009, there were 163,336 nonprofits in California, an increase of 34.1% since 1999. Of these, 112,879 were 501(c)(3) public charities (69.1% of all nonprofits).1
- More than 13 million professionals and 61 million volunteers work for nonprofit organizations in the United States.1
- In 2012, the nonprofit share of the gross domestic product (GDP) was 5.5%.2
- The sector generated $1.6 trillion in revenues and $1.5 trillion in expenses in 2011 and makes a significant impact on the nation’s economy. Nonprofits account for 9.2% of all wages and salaries paid in the United States.1
- Nonprofits accounted for 10.1% of total employment in the United States in 2010, with total employees numbering 10.7 million. The nonprofit workforce is the third largest of all U.S. industries behind retail trade and manufacturing.3
- During the Great Recession (2007–2009), the nonprofit sector gained jobs at an average rate of 1.9% per year, whereas the private sector lost jobs at a rate of 3.7% per year.3
- The average annual growth rate of employment for nonprofits during the 2000–2010 period was 2.1%, whereas the for-profit sector shrank 0.6%.3
- Nonprofit employment by sector is approximately 57% for health services, 15% for education, 13% for social assistance, 7% for civic associations, 4% for other, 3% for arts and culture, and 2% for professional services.3
National Center for Charitable Statistics
The Nonprofit Almanac 2012
Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins University