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Nonprofits Should Flex their Advocacy Muscle… but Clear Definitions are Needed from the IRS

Judy Keller
Executive Vice Presidentjudy Keller for proposals 2012


A United State Senate Judiciary Committee recently addressed IRS oversight of partisan political activity by tax-exempt organizations.

The move is recognition that the current definitions and rules governing partisan political activity are unclear.

Advocacy is permissible for any 501(c)(3) and political activity is permissible for certain tax-exempt organizations, but many do not engage in the activities because they are either afraid of running afoul of the rules or simply do not have the capacity to investigate and implement successful advocacy functions. By avoiding advocacy, nonprofits miss huge opportunities to further their missions and engage in meaningful educational programs with community leaders.

There should be no confusion regarding the difference between permissible nonpartisan activities undertaken by charitable organizations to encourage civic participation, and partisan political activities aimed at influencing the outcome of elections. The IRS should issue clear definitions of political activity that applies across all tax-exempt categories and protects the vital voice of tax-exempt organizations in civic engagement efforts that benefit and sustain communities and strengthen our democratic society.

An organization is free to educate its members about candidates’ statements regarding their issues (with valid citations, of course) but it cannot issue a call to action suggesting for whom those members should vote.

Unambiguous standards are needed so nonprofit organizations can confidently educate the public and advocate for their missions and clients served. Civic organizations should give full voice to their issues and preserve their important advocacy role. Their full engagement within the

It is promising to see both the IRS and the Senate Judiciary subcommittee address the topic. But nonprofits need to do their part as well. It is our responsibility as leaders in philanthropy to participate and actively engage with our elected officials regarding these critical issues. Our elected officials need our active involvement and expertise in helping them maneuver through the maze of policy options.

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