Perhaps the most effective way to bring about social change is to elect the right people. Yet nonprofit 501c3 organizations are prohibited from supporting or opposing candidates running for office. Some long-time nonprofit practices address this restriction, but are seldom discussed in public. We bring these practices -- and the reasons for them -- to print:
Nonprofits can take stands on policy issues: we all know this. Our organizations can take stands on local issues (such as zoning changes), state issues (education budget), and national issues (immigration reform). We can write policy briefs and letters to the editor that advocate strongly for or against any proposed law or policy. We can lobby legislators and we can encourage our constituents to write their senators (within wide limits). We can organize a march on City Hall. But we can't say, "Our organization endorses Joe X for senator." Nor can we say, "Vote out Senator Joe Y."
In other words, we are legally able to do many kinds of political work, but not the most effective: endorsing and opposing candidates.
For decades many nonprofits have worked around these rules, taking careful, strategic steps for two reasons:
To influence voters in their constituencies to vote for a particular candidate
To establish a relationship with a candidate that will be useful once that person is in office
If we want to be effective with legislators in office, we'll be a lot more effective if we've helped them get elected. As one executive director of a national women's rights organization said recently in New York, "You can't lobby 'em if you didn't help elect 'em."
We talked with three nonprofit executive directors (in addition to the one quoted above) about the importance of endorsing candidates and how to do it legally . . . Read more