There is a lot going on in the world today. Whether locally, nationally or internationally, current issues are on the forefront of almost everyone’s minds. As a nonprofit organization, it can be difficult to avoid controversial or offensive topics. You definitely do not want to isolate potential constituents, but some issues may relate to your mission. Your group could have a strong opinion and might even prefer like-minded constituents.
A lot of gray area exists when it comes to controversial topics. What can your nonprofit organization say or not say? Should your nonprofit even get involved? We are going to discuss some of these issues and the pros and cons that can come along with taking a stand.
What kind of nonprofit are you?
What your NPO can do or say on controversial issues often involves what type of nonprofit organization you belong to. A 501(c)(4) and a 501(c)(3) organization have similarities, but have very different responsibilities when it comes to political activity.
A 501(c)(4) works as a social welfare organization. These NGOs can engage in a variety of political activities, some of which come with no restrictions and others with restrictions to a degree. Examples of 501(c)(4) organizations include the AARP and the NRA.
Both of these groups may engage in political activity and lobby for legislative changes they believe in. However, advocating for a particular political candidate has more restrictions. In order to maintain their tax exemption status, 501(c)(4) organizations must restrict political activity to only a portion of their purpose.
On the other hand, 501(c)(3) organizations have a lot more restrictions in their political activity. They are typically not allowed to get involved in political issues and are permitted very limited lobbying. These NGOs may engage in general voter education about issues, including those which affect its mission, as long as all viewpoints come represented.
Although 501(c)(3) groups may not take political sides, they can spend up to 20% of their operating budget on lobbying efforts, as long as they follow the rules of “non-partisanship.” You may also need to pay to register as a lobbyist. This can be tricky, though, so before making any decisions, be sure to check your nonprofit’s status and rules, then tread carefully.
What affects your tax exemption?
The most challenging part about taking a stand on current issues and getting involved occurs when it affects tax-exempt status. In return for favored tax status, charities guarantee the federal government they will not engage in “political campaign activity.” Obviously, wording such as this can be a little gray and confusing, so be cautious in approaching controversial political topics.
In most cases, donations to 501(c)(4) groups are not tax deductible, which gives them more freedom on political issues without having severe consequences. 501(c)(3) organizations, however, have stricter rules because of their tax exemption. If materials or budget resources have been used inappropriately, a nonprofit organization can lose its tax-exempt status. Cases like this have happened before, so make sure you and the your NGO take it seriously.
What can you do or not do?
All this being said, what then can a 501(c)(3) nonprofit do when it comes to controversial issues it cares about? Well, we have compiled a quick guide.
- Non-partisan activities (e.g., voter registration, non-partisan debates and voter education).
- Legislative or issue advocacy, as long as it avoids political campaigning.
- Individuals involved with the group can voice their non-affiliated opinions and participate in political campaigns, not speaking for the organization.
- Use organizational funds to publish materials in support of a specific candidate.
- Donate money from the organization to a political candidate.
- Make public statements in support of or against a political candidate in an official capacity.
- Conduct a voting drive or event in a partisan manner.
- Favor one candidate at an event while not inviting or including another.
What are some pros of getting involved?
If your organization wants to voice an opinion on a controversial topic, it is worth considering certain pros and cons. The greatest pro of an NGO getting involved is it shows conviction on a topic your nonprofit probably cares deeply about. Current issues today can have serious effects on many nonprofits’ missions, so stating an opinion demonstrates your involvement, focus and 100% alignment with your cause and purpose.
Secondly, many constituents who do support your cause may feel the same way, and taking a stand will probably deepen their relationship with the organization. When individuals see an NGO’s conviction, they themselves will likely respond similarly and be more involved. Finally, getting involved in current issues could actually make a difference. If your nonprofit feels strongly about an event, voicing an opinion could affect the outcome of any political decisions and could positively impact the organization.
What are some cons of getting involved?
Of course, there are some potentially negative effects of getting too involved in current events. Besides possibly losing tax-exempt status, your organization could also drive constituents away if they don’t agree with your opinion. For every donor or volunteer who agrees with you, you run the risk of constituents not agreeing and writing off the group all together. While this may be a good thing—perhaps you want specific supporters who fully support all aspects of your mission—it could also be a bad thing, so be mindful when making controversial statements.
Taking a stand on current issues can be a daunting and difficult challenge for nonprofit organizations. You may not be sure what you want to say or even if you are allowed to say it. Before making any decisions, consider all your options and every angle of the issue. Stand strong with your convictions while still including constituents and growing your mission.