How 501(C)3 Nonprofit Organizations Can Engage in Politics


During a very partisan political season, it can be challenging for nonprofits to stay true to their mission while remaining nonpartisan. However, nonpartisanship does not mean that nonprofits can’t engage in politics.

Our Homes, Our Votes: 2020 Voter & Candidate Engagement Toolkit is a resource created by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) to help local housing nonprofits and advocates navigate the world of elections while remaining nonpartisan.

Read the full document here 

In the section, Legal Do’s and Don’ts for 501(C)3 Nonprofit Organizations (pg. 2), the NLIHC clearly illustrates the line between partisan political activity and legal nonprofit advocacy. As this topic is central to the coalition’s work, we thought we would share pieces of this resource with you all.

This table (from page 2 of Our Homes, Our Votes), is a great tool for understanding the role of 501(C)3 organizations in the political sphere:

Importantly, 501(C)3 organizations CAN take official positions on ballot initiatives that align with their mission statement. The NLIHC recommends that any nonprofits engaging in political activity use Bolder Advocacy as a resource for understanding current regulations.

Although nonprofits are barred from making endorsements of political candidates, they MAY educate candidates and voters about issues related to their mission. The NLIHC gives these tips for remaining nonpartisan while educating political candidates:

  1. Never criticize candidate statements

  2. But you can add perspective or correct the record

  3. Do not rank or rate candidates

  4. Ranking constitutes an endorsement

  5. Legislative scorecards

  6. Only for incumbent legislators

  7. These are distinct from voter guides

  8. What about nonpartisan candidate elections?

  9. It’s still not okay to endorse candidates or coordinate with campaigns

When educating voters, the NLIHC recommends focusing on three key areas in order to stay nonpartisan:

  1. Election Day details

  2. Voters’ rights

  3. Candidate positions on issues

In order to mobilize low-income voters on election day, they suggest:

  1. Providing rides to and from polling locations

  2. Becoming a polling location

  3. Encouraging vote-by-mail and early absentee voting

  4. Organizing group voting

  5. Asking voters to make plan

  6. Educating voters on what to bring with them

  7. Providing childcare on election day

The week of Town Meeting Day is a great time to practice legal civic engagement, so we hope that this post has been helpful in clarifying the role of nonprofit organizations in housing advocacy. As you can see, there are a number of ways that 501(C)3 organizations can influence policy without crossing the line into partisan political activity.

If you would like more information, check out the full resource from the NLIHC, Bolder Advocacy, and the Coalition’s resources webpage.

Also check out the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty: https://nlchp.org/election2020guide/

Thanks for reading!

#AdvocacyandPolicy #Vermont

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