There are rules governing what charitable nonprofit organizations can and cannot do leading up to and during an election. The most important thing to remember is that a 501(c)(3) nonprofit must remain nonpartisan at all times. An organization may support or challenge a piece of legislation or an issue, but may not support or criticize an elected official or candidate for office. If a particular issue is a hot partisan item and each candidate has a clear and opposing view on the issue, nonprofits should exercise caution in how outspoken they are about that issue so that they do not appear to be supporting one candidate.
Voter and Election Activities All 501(c)(3) Organizations CAN Do on a Non-Partisan Basis
- Voter registration
- Voter education on the process of voting (where to vote, information on elections and election process)
- Voting rights and election reform
- Get Out the Vote (GOTV)– Encourage and facilitate voting of your community and members. Federal funds may not be used for voter registration. Nonprofits may target GOTV activities towards traditionally underserved or underrepresented areas or populations; they may not target populations based on their political or ideological leanings.
- Election day activities – Election Monitors, non-partisan GOTV, etc.
- Voter education on the candidates and ballot issues
- Supporting and opposing ballot questions – These activities are subject to normal lobbying limits. There are no limits on non-partisan voter education on ballot measures that presents both sides of the question. Regular lobbying limits apply if your organization endorses “yes” or “no.”
- Publish legislative scorecards – Scorecards must be provided for all officials eligible to vote.
- Scorecards leading up to an election should be prepared and used in the same manner as in non-election times. It is best to avoid publishing scorecards leading up to an election if your organization has not regularly published them in the past.
- Candidate questionnaires – Questions must be nonpartisan and cover a broad range of topics. If a particular topic is a partisan debate topic, such as abortion, gun control, etc., avoid asking questions about that topic. Reprint the exact answers of the candidates, and give equal opportunities to all candidates to answer and publish answers from all candidates.
- Candidate forums – All candidates must be invited and equally encouraged to attend. If a majority of candidates cannot attend, be sure to remain nonpartisan in questions and cover a broad range of topics. If a particular topic is a partisan debate topic (such as abortion, gun control, etc.) avoid asking questions about that topic.
- Candidate education – Educate all of the candidates equally on public interest issues.
- Rent mailing lists and facilities to organizations, legislators, and candidates – Rentals must be made at fair market value and if made available to members of one party, must be available to members of all other parties. It is best to follow rental procedures established independent of election cycles.
- Establish a controlled 501(c)(4) organization
Election Activities 501(c)(3) Organizations CANNOT Do
- Endorse candidates for public office*
- Make any campaign contributions*
- Make expenditures on behalf of candidates
- Restrict rental of their mailing lists and facilities to certain candidates
- Ask candidates to sign pledges on any issue (tacit endorsement)
- Increase the amount of incumbent criticism as election time approaches
- Publish or communicate anything that explicitly or implicitly favors or opposes a candidate
*While nonprofit organizations cannot participate in or contribute to a candidate’s campaign, volunteers, staff or board members of an organization may do so provided that they are acting as individual citizens, not on behalf of the organization.