Do you just cringe when you hear the nonsense that comes out of people’s mouths during the election season? Posturing, abandonment of facts, abuse of statistics and often revisionist history can make the torrent of words we have to endure even more painful. During an election time, many relevant and often emotional topics that include the work of nonprofits become issues that candidates or initiatives bring into public conversation. And you sooo want to make your stand clear. But, be careful…..
As a nonprofit, you are prohibited from either supporting or opposing the candidate or the initiative. You can educate and advocate for your issues, but you can’t tell people how to vote or whom to support. Your nonprofit is not allowed to attempt to influence voting in any way, that’s part of the deal of being a nonprofit.
Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.
If some information is put forth that is factually incorrect and is immediately relevant to your work, choose the words of your rebuttal carefully. You may directly address the facts but you may not attack the person who spoke them.
For instance, if a candidate makes the statement “Exercise is not healthy for children” as a reason to decrease supportive funding, a nonprofit that advocates exercise for kids needs to consider the best choice of language to correct this inaccuracy. Use broad language such as issue and policy-focused wording and avoid making a personal attack on the person who said it (even if he or she IS an idiot). Use facts and reputable studies to reinforce your information and position.
- Focus on the issue, not the speaker. “Access to exercise is beneficial for children.” Support this statement with evidence.
- Choose a spokesperson for your organization and employ direct, consistent language. Board chair? Executive Director? Volunteer?
- Outline your talking points in advance, and provide them on your website. Create a succinct, bulleted list of your top issues and goals.
- Be sure to include the disclaimer that you are a 501 c 3, tax-exempt nonprofit organization, therefore are restricted in the nature of your comments: “Our status as a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization does not allow us to endorse any candidates.”
- Discuss the qualifications, or lack thereof of, any candidate.
- Use names, use titles instead: e.g. “ The Senate Minority Leader” .
- Don’t use the candidate’s voting record when discussing the process of any initiative.
- Discuss the voters or the election in particular, rather use terms such as “Americans want to see healthier options for children” or “ This issue needs to be a national priority”, rather than ‘for this election…’ or ‘voters will prefer…’.
- Be drawn into a competition between candidates; remain focused on the issue and outcome you seek. Take the high road.
All of us have seen how easily words and ideas can be twisted by the traditional media, by well-meaning but misinformed folks and the often hysterical and reactionary social media. It is imperative to think and plan carefully before speaking or publishing.
Consider how you would like to be quoted and behave accordingly. This goes for email as well, remember the old adage: if you don’t think you will like how it looks in newsprint, don’t send it.
We would like to help you develop a concise position statement about your priorities for the upcoming elections, and to craft your clearest talking points and practices.