Elections and 501(c)(3) Organizations
Director of Public Policy, Maryland Nonprofits
An IRS notice for charities, updated on March 5, re-states the basic rule prohibiting any partisan political activity regarding candidates for office.
“Partisan Political Activity” can take many forms, sometimes even unintended. While IRS materials even take the position that motivation is not required, they also make clear that 501(c)(3) organizations may continue issue advocacy, and engage in voter engagement activities as long as they don’t become partisan or show favoritism.
There are good materials available from the Bolder Advocacy project of the Alliance for Justice, and the IRS has issued a formal Revenue Ruling (RR 2007-41) explaining the prohibition and a walk through numerous hypothetical questions with their answers.
Remember that other nonprofits, including 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations and 501(c)(6) professional or business associations (like chambers of commerce) can become partisan, and endorse or contribute to candidates. They may hold candidate debates or forums using formats that would not be allowed as a 501(c)(3) activity. Remember also that some charities may do things without knowing the rules, so be careful just copying the way another does something.