Some guidance for 501(c)(3)s speaking about the election and appointments

Hannah Weilbacher

Hi Roundtable organizations,

Many of us want to speak publicly about the outcome of last week's election. Some of our organizations don't put out statements, and that's fine too (although feel free to reach out to us if you want to talk through whether a statement might make sense for you in this moment!).
Here is how we can do that. 
Off the bat - please reach out with ANY questions you have. We want you to be able to speak up as loudly as you can, and we do not want confusion about legality to hinder you.
Some key takeaways (but read the whole blog!)

While the prohibition against “campaign intervention”—taking actions that may help elect or defeat a candidate—cannot be ignored after Election Day, a charity need not avoid communications that address the 2016 election or mention previous candidates.

Some safe things that a charity might do:

  • congratulate a candidate or say thanks for all of his or her hard work;
  • focus on policy issues you’d like to see a winning candidate address now that he or she has been elected to office;
  • comment on the results of the past election—what happened and why (but be careful not to comment too generally on anyone who might be a future candidate – see first bullet point below);
  • advocate for changes in the election process (e.g., modifying voter identification laws; modifying or abolishing the Electoral College); and
  • engage with the current presidential transition team about policy issues or nominations.

Some of these activities might involve legislation, so organizations that wish to avoid lobbying should consider this possibility in advance and if necessary consult legal counsel.

Things a charity still should avoid:

  • supporting or opposing a former candidate or a political party in a way that might carry forward to a future election (rather than, for instance, focusing on what a winning candidate should or shouldn’t do while in office);
  • taking credit for an election result, which could suggest intended intervention in the past election that may undermine the organization’s nonpartisan status in the future; and
  • indicating that the organization intends to hold the elected candidate accountable in a way that is susceptible to being interpreted as a reference to a future election.
Some key takeaways (but read the whole one pager!)
Nonprofits can
  • Take a position on the outcome of the election: Nonprofits can criticize or praise the winners and losers. 
  • Plan for future legislative and regulatory advocacy: Nonprofits can brainstorm about how likely policy moves by the new administration will affect our communities. Nonprofits can also plan to lobby to protect the laws, regulations, and government funding our communities need to thrive. (Note that this activity may count towards the IRS’ ceiling on permissible lobbying by public charities, and it may trigger an obligation to register and report as a lobbyist.) 
  • Organize and conduct public education: Nonprofits can listen to community members’ fears, and work with community members to mobilize around shared goals. 
Nonprofits can’t
  • Plan for the next election: Nonprofits should not mobilize their communities to call for an electoral outcome of next year’s Mayoral race, the 2018 Congressional elections, or the next Presidential race.
Knowledge is power. Let's raise our voices!