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. Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise tax.
Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances. For example, certain voter education activities (including the presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity.
In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not constitute prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner. On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that: (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.
Individual Activity by Organization Leaders
The political campaign activity prohibition is not intended to restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of organizations speaking for themselves, as individuals. Nor are leaders prohibited from speaking about important issues of public policy. However, for their organizations to remain tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3), leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions.
To avoid potential attribution of their comments outside of organization functions and publications, organization leaders who speak or write in their individual capacity are encouraged to indicate clearly that their comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of the organization.
Inviting a Candidate to Speak
Depending on the facts and circumstances, an organization may invite political candidates to speak at its events without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status. Political candidates may be invited in their capacity as candidates, or individually (not as a candidate).
Speaking as a Candidate:
When a candidate is invited to speak at an organization event as a political candidate, the organization must take steps to ensure that:
- It provides an equal opportunity to the political candidates seeking the same office,
- It does not indicate any support of or opposition to the candidate (This should be stated explicitly when the candidate is introduced and in communications concerning the candidate’s attendance.), and
- No political fundraising occurs.
Equal Opportunity to Participate:
In determining whether candidates are given an equal opportunity to participate, an organization should consider the nature of the event to which each candidate is invited, in addition to the manner of presentation.
For example, an organization that invites one candidate to speak at its well attended annual banquet, but invites the opposing candidate to speak at a sparsely attended general meeting, will likely be found to have violated the political campaign prohibition, even if the manner of presentation for both speakers is otherwise neutral.
Sometimes an organization invites several candidates to speak at a public forum. A public forum involving several candidates for public office may qualify as an exempt educational activity. However, if the forum is operated to show a bias for or against any candidate, then the forum would be a prohibited campaign activity, as it would be considered intervention or participation in a political campaign.
When an organization invites several candidates to speak at a forum, it should consider the following factors:
- Whether questions for the candidate are prepared and presented by an independent nonpartisan panel,
- Whether the topics discussed by the candidates cover a broad range of issues that the candidates would address if elected to the office sought and are of interest to the public,
- Whether each candidate is given an equal opportunity to present his or her views on the issues discussed,
- Whether the candidates are asked to agree or disagree with positions, agendas, platforms or statements of the organization, and
- Whether a moderator comments on the questions or otherwise implies approval or disapproval of the candidates.
Speaking as a Non-Candidate:
An organization may invite political candidates to speak in a non-candidate capacity. For instance, a political candidate may be a public figure because he or she: (a) currently holds, or formerly held, public office; (b) is considered an expert in a non-political field; or (c) is a celebrity or has led a distinguished military, legal, or public service career. When a candidate is invited to speak at an event in a non-candidate capacity, it is not necessary for the organization to provide equal access to all political candidates.
However, the organization must ensure that:
- The individual speaks only in a non-candidate capacity,
- Neither the individual nor any representative of the organization makes any mention of his or her candidacy or the election, and
- No campaign activity occurs in connection with the candidate’s attendance.
In addition, the organization should clearly indicate the capacity in which the candidate is appearing and should not mention the individual’s political candidacy or the upcoming election in the communications announcing the candidate’s attendance at the event.