All tax exempt 501(c)(3) organizations are prohibited from directly or indirectly participating or intervening in political campaigns, including endorsing or opposing specific candidates. However, there are activities that are permissible and don’t cross the line. In an important election year, the subject of politics is daily news. Here are the distinctions that churches and nonprofits can do and remain tax exempt and what they cannot do:
- Conduct voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives as long as the activity doesn’t have a bias toward a political party or candidate.
- Invite candidates to speak at events, as long as all candidates for the same office have an equal opportunity (and no fundraising occurs).
- Allow candidates to speak to the organization without mentioning the election or candidacy (speak in a non-candidate capacity).
- Take a stand on policies, as long as the message doesn’t specifically favor or oppose a candidate or political party with words or images.
- Participate as individuals in campaigns, but not represent as if the views are of the church or the organization.
- Educate voters on the issues and pending legislation, as long as the information is non-partisan.
- Distribute non-partisan voter guides. Facts and voting records are not considered biased information.
- Fundraising for any candidate, or allowing a candidate to fundraise at a church or organizational event.
- Making a donation to any candidate, political party, or political action committee.
- Providing business opportunity such as leasing office space or renting mailing lists, when the opportunity is not available to all candidates equally in the same election.
- Devoting a substantial part of activities to lobbying for political issues.
- Posting comments on the church or organization’s website that favor or endorse a candidate. (Monitor links to other websites that may indicate affiliation with the other site’s point of view.)
- Holding ‘bi-partisan’ events that are thinly-veiled opportunities to steer the influence in a particular direction.
Violating the rules puts a church or organization tax-exempt status at risk. The best course of action is to avoid any activities or statements that connect your organization to a specific candidate or group of candidates. Talk with your Salmon Sims Thomas tax advisor about these issues or others that affect your church or organization’s compliance.