Create the Vote 2020: Nonprofits and Elections

Caring for our communities, delivering critical services to those in need, creating great art for everyone, supporting learning for all ages. Nonprofit organizations are integral to the lives of residents across the Commonwealth and are often called to be civic leaders in their community. 

Yet, when it comes to elections, many nonprofits stay very quiet. This is because there is often misinformation and confusion over what a nonprofit can and cannot do when it comes to advocacy and elections. As a result, nonprofit leaders and board members tend to stay silent just when our leadership is needed most. Federal tax law states that 501(c)(3) organizations are “prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in — or intervening in — any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for elective office.” However, 501(c)(3)s can still engage in nonpartisan advocacy and promote civic engagement in the election season. 

Create the Vote 2020 is a nonpartisan, public education campaign that encourages arts and cultural nonprofits to take a leadership role in strengthening our democracy and increasing civic engagement through nonpartisan voter education, registration and turnout. Below are some useful do’s and don’ts that nonprofits can use when considering how to play a larger civic leadership role.

Permissible Activities (Do’s)

Voter Engagement and Education

  • 501(c)(3)s can encourage voter participation, in some of the following ways:
    • Organizing nonpartisan voter registration drives
    • Hosting or leading get-out-the-vote events

Example: The Art House Music Center hosts a voter registration zoom party with musical performances by local artists and a short presentation on how attendees can register to vote online. 

  • 501(c)(3)s can promote resources for voter registration and education, in the following ways:
    • Provide information about the voting process and share updates to the voting process required due to the COVID-19 pandemic
    • Send emails to mailing lists on the importance of voting
    • Create social media posts with poll location information
    • Provide sample ballots and nonpartisan voter guides that help educate the public on the voting process
    • Send reminders of important dates including deadlines to register to vote, early voting periods and the actual primary and general election dates

Example: The Meadows Historical Museum sends an email titled “Don’t forget to make a plan to #CreateTheVote on Election Day” to all members. The email includes the dates of the primary and general elections, info on how to request an absentee ballot, and a map of polling locations in the area. 

Candidate Interactions

501(c)(3)s can engage with candidate campaigns but must be sure to engage with ALL candidates running for a particular office. Ways to do this include:

  • Prepare candidate questionnaires and ask all candidates to fill them out
  • Host candidate forums and invite all candidates to attend

Example: The Cultural Coalition writes a short questionnaire asking candidates running for Mayor what their vision is for arts and culture in the City. After sending the questionnaire to all candidates running for Mayor they post all candidate responses on their website. 

Issue Advocacy and Lobbying

  • 501(c)(3)s may continue to engage in issue advocacy during the election period including the value of arts and culture in Massachusetts. However, any issue advocacy and lobbying must be tied to the organization’s previous work and not designed to influence how people vote
  • 501(c)(3)s can also provide information to educate candidates on issues, as long as the same resources are made available to all candidates. This information can include program initiatives, as well as policy papers and research
  • 501(c)(3)s can support, oppose, or host conversations about ballot measures, but must avoid tying ballot measures to specific candidates or parties

Example: Every year The Blue Ocean Aquarium urges its members to call their members of Congress in support of an Ocean Clean Up Bill. This election year, The Blue Ocean Aquarium sends every candidate running for Congress a research paper on how the Ocean Clean Up bill will help protect Sea Lions that live in the Bay. 

Partisan Activities (Don’ts)

501(c)(3)s and staff members who are acting on behalf of the organization cannot:

  • Endorse or support a candidate
  • Make a campaign contribution (monetary or in-kind) for or against a candidate
    • In-kind contributions can include sharing mailing lists, donating staff time, or giving office space to a campaign
  • Rank or compare candidates
  • Send communications in support or against a candidate or political party
  • Sponsor fundraising events for a candidate or political party
  • Let a candidate or political party use the organization’s facilities or resources without making the same services available to all candidates

This list of prohibited activities is not exhaustive, as partisanship depends on situational “facts and circumstances.” 501(c)(3)s should generally be guided by the intent to engage and educate the public rather than to support or oppose candidates. 

We recommend checking out additional resources from Bolder Advocacy, an organization dedicated to equipping nonprofits with the knowledge they need to be confident and powerful advocates. 

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