Last updated: October 13, 2022
David Heinen, Vice President for Public Policy and Advocacy
Wondering what types of election-related activities your nonprofit can and can’t do between now and the November 8 general election? You’re not alone; the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits has been fielding many questions about what’s legal and what’s advisable. Here’s a quick take on some of the most common questions we’re hearing.
What are the basic rules about nonprofits and elections?
Under federal tax law, 501(c)(3) nonprofits can’t endorse or oppose candidates or political parties and can’t make campaign contributions, including in-kind donations such as use of office equipment or space. Charitable nonprofits may, however, engage in nonpartisan election-related activities. For example, without favoring one party or candidate over another, nonprofits can engage in voter registration, get-out-the-vote, and voter education efforts. The IRS’s clearest (and most recent) guidance on what nonprofits can and can’t do in an election year comes in the form of a 2007 Revenue Ruling that analyzed 21 typical scenarios of election-related activities by 501(c)(3) organizations. While 501(c)(3) nonprofits can lose their tax-exempt status if they violate these rules, the reality is that the IRS rarely enforces them. Nonetheless, you should strictly obey them – and not just for legal reasons (though those matter)!
Consider this: Even though the threat of legal penalties is remote, nonprofits risk losing the trust of their donors, volunteers, clients, and the public if their activities even create the appearance that they are taking sides in partisan politics. Many people in your community rightly perceive that nonprofits have a legal obligation to abstain from backing or opposing any candidates. If they see your organization isn’t following this rule, they’ll start wondering where else you are cutting corners or ignoring important laws and best practices.
Should nonprofits encourage people to vote?
Absolutely. Nonprofits are among the most trusted institutions in every community of North Carolina. When nonprofits provide nonpartisan information about elections, people listen to them. Furthermore, nonprofits can empower the people they serve by encouraging them to vote. Research from Nonprofit VOTE has shown that voter turnout is measurably higher among people who received nonpartisan information about an election from a nonprofit service provider or who registered to vote at the encouragement of a nonprofit.
Nonprofit VOTE has excellent resources on nonpartisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote activities for nonprofits. If your nonprofit has never done voter registration, get-out-the-vote, or voter education work, 2022 is a great time to start!
What type of voter education can nonprofits do?
Nonprofits can help citizens become active and informed voters in two important ways:
- They can provide basic, nonpartisan information about the election process. This includes details about: the eligibility requirements for registering to vote; the dates and times that polls will be open during Early Voting and on Election Day; where to find Early Voting sites; how voters can find their polling place and see what is on their ballot; and what type of identification is (or is not) required to vote (note: voters will NOT be required to show photo ID in the 2022 election). This type of voter education is particularly important in North Carolina where election laws are constantly changing. In North Carolina, You Can Vote and Democracy North Carolina both have user-friendly, nonpartisan resources with the latest information on the election process.
- They can inform the public about candidates for office by publishing – or sharing – voter guides that include unedited responses to questionnaires about policy issues from all candidates for an office. Nonprofits also can host – or participate in candidate forums if all the major candidates for an office are invited to participate and most or all of them show up for the event.
Is is really possible for nonprofits to host nonpartisan candidate forums?
It is indeed! It's important to invited all major candidtes for any races that will be included in the forum .. and to consider not holding the forum if only a few candidate - or only candidates from one political party - agree to participate. It's also important to have a moderator who doesn't take sides, to ask questions that are of broad public interest and that don't have obvious "right" or "wrong" answers, and to ensure that candidates have the same amount of time to answer each question.
The Center recently partnered with several Pitt County nonprofits to organize a nonpartisan nonprofit candidate forum for.congressional and state legislative candidates from Pitt County. The candidates shared their views on a wide range of policy issues, including access to affordable health care, food insecurity, affordable housing, and policy solutions to help seniors and the growing Latino population. During and after the forum, each of the candidates noted that, through their participation in the forum, they learned more about these important policy issues and gained a deeper appreciation for the work of nonprofits that serve Pitt County. Based on this experience, the Center looks forward to working with nonprofits on similar candidate forums in Pitt County and other parts of the state in the future.
Can a nonprofit tell people who is on their ballot?
Certainly. In fact, I’ll show you how to do it right now! Go to the NC State Board of Election Voter Search page and enter your name (if you have a relatively common name, you can narrow your search by including your middle initial, year of birth, and/or county). Click on the link for your name that shows up after the search. From there, you can click on your sample ballot and find the address of your polling place on Election Day.
Nonprofits can provide a great service by encouraging their staff, board members, volunteers, and the people they serve to check out their ballots before voting. Voters will be choosing dozens of elected officials this year. North Carolina’s ballot includes choices for a U.S. Senator, our 14 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, our 50 state senators and 120 state representatives, two NC Supreme Court justices, four NC Court of Appeals judges, several state judges, county board members, school board members, and soil and water conservation district supervisors.
Can a nonprofit encourage people to register to vote?
Definitely, as long as the organization isn’t encouraging them to affiliate with a particular political party. In fact, nonprofits are among the most effective messengers encouraging voter registration since they have the trust of their donors, volunteers, staff, and communities.
Can a nonprofit coordinate with another organziation on rides to the polls?
It depends. Charitable nonprofits can work with other 501(c)(3) nonprofits, including churches and other houses of worship, to provide nonpartisan rides to the polls for people in their communities. It is not permissible, however, for a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to coordinate with a candidate or political party (or with a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization) to provide rides to the polls for people who are likely to vote for certain candidates.
Can a nonprofit encourage people to request absentee ballots? Or to vote early?
Absolutely. With the COVID-19 pandemic, a record number of North Carolinians voted by absentee ballot in 2020. In 2022, the NC State Board of Elections once again has an online portal for requesting absentee ballots online. The online application process only takes about three minutes to complete, but it can take a few weeks to receive your ballot. November 1 is the deadline to request an absentee ballot for the November 8 election, but nonprofits should encourage people planning to vote by mail to request their absentee ballot early so they receive it in time to return it before Election Day. Absentee ballots need to be returned by 5 p.m. on Election Day (November 8) and can be returned by mail (as long as they are postmarked by November 8 AND received by Monday, November 14) or in-person at the county board of elections or any Early Voting site.
Early Voting – especially at an off-peak hour – is also a great option for North Carolinians hoping to avoid large crowds on Election Day (although the last Saturday of Early Voting is usually very popular). Early Voting is available in all 100 counties (find your Early Voting sites here). During the Early Voting period (October 20 through November 5), eligible citizens can register to vote (or update their address) onsite at any Early Voting location in their county. Because voters don’t have to worry about going to the right polling place and can vote even if they’ve moved since the last election, Early Voting is the safest way to guarantee that your ballot will actually be counted. In the 2016 election, 99.8% of voters who used Early Voting had their votes counted, as opposed to 98% who voted on Election Day.
Is it too late to change my voter registration before the election?
No (as long as you are reading this no later than noon on Saturday, November 5). North Carolinians can register to vote – or update their registration if they need to change their name, address, or partisan affiliation – through October 14 or in-person during Early Voting (between October 20 and November 5).
Are you hinting that Early Voting is the preferred way of voting?
Yes! And we'll be even more explicit - Early Voting is the best option for many voters. Threre are several advantage to voting early:
- You can vote on a day and time that is convenient for your schedule.
- You can vote at any Early Voting site in your county. On Election Day, you can only vote at your own precinct.
- If you get sick or have another unexpected commitment at the time you planned to vote, you still have other opportunities to vote. On the other hand, if you wait until Election Day and can't make it to your polling place, you don't get to vote.
- Some voters show up on Election Day and discover that they aren't eligible to vote because never registered to vote or that they are registered at a previous address. During Early Voting, you can register to vote or update your address and still vote immediately.
- It's the best way to make sure your vote actually counts. As noted above, a far higher percentage of ballots cast during Early Voting are counted than those cast on Election Day.
In the last couple of questions you've referenced changing partisan affiliation. Why would I want to do that?
In North Carolina's primary elections, registered Democrats may only vote in the Democratic primary, and registered Republicans may only vote in the Republican primary. (Likewise, registered voters for third parties may only vote in their parties' primaries.) Unaffiliated votes, on the other hand, have the option of choosing any party's ballot in the primary election. In some counties, only one party has competitive primary elections – and the primary election is often the de facto election in places without competitive general elections – so it may be advantageous for some voters to be registed as unaffiliated so they have a chance to vote in an election with a meaningful choice of candidates. This spring, unaffiliated voters became the largest voting bloc (35.5% of all registered voters) in North Carolina, ahead of registered Democrats (33.8%) and registered Republicans (30.0%).
Certainly. Nonprofits can help make sure that their staff have the opportunity to vote by offering paid time off to vote during Early Voting or on Election Day and paid time off for staff to volunteer as nonpartisan poll workers. To make it easy for your nonprofit to adopt this type of policy, the Center is sharing the language that our board adopted in 2020 and refined in 2022:
“Voting and Election Day. The Center encourages all employees who are eligible to vote to participate fully in the electoral process. Any Center employee may take paid time off work on Election Day or during the Early Voting period to vote in any primary, general, or run-off election. Employees should notify their supervisors of the time they plan to take off for voting.
“Center employees also may take up to one day per year of paid time off to volunteer in a nonpartisan role as a poll worker on Election Day or during the Early Voting period. Employees must get prior written approval of their supervisors (which shall not unreasonably be denied) before taking this paid time off. Employees volunteering for political parties or campaigns on Election Day or during the Early Voting period may not be paid for their time engaging in partisan political activities, but they may take annual leave for any time spent volunteering for candidates or political parties.
“Paid time off for voting and nonpartisan election volunteer work is in addition to annual leave, sick leave, and personal leave that employees have accrued. Employees are not required to use annual leave, sick leave, or personal leave when they take paid time off to vote or to volunteer as a nonpartisan poll worker pursuant to this policy.”
Feel free to use the Center’s policy as a model for your own organization.
Can a nonprofit leader personally endorse a candidate?
Certainly. Nonprofit staff, board members, and volunteers don’t give up their free speech rights simply because they’re associated with a 501(c)(3) organization. As individuals, they can support candidates for office, make campaign contributions (with some limitations if they are registered as lobbyists with the NC Secretary of State), and even run for office.
However, they need to be certain they don’t imply that their personal political positions are made on behalf of their organizations. Nonprofits can protect themselves by reminding staff and volunteers not to use the organization’s name, email address, office space, or phones when they help with political campaigns. It’s also a good practice for nonprofits to avoid mentioning political candidacies of their staff, board members, volunteers, and donors during organizational events and on their websites.
Does it become a problem if a candidate who has been endorsed by a nonprofit leader runs a campaign ad touting the endorsement and mentioning the organization by name?
Legally, it’s still not a problem for the nonprofit unless the nonprofit paid for the ad or gave permission for the implied endorsement by the organization. It may, however, create the appearance that the nonprofit has engaged in impermissible partisan political intervention. If this becomes a problem for the nonprofit’s reputation, the organization can ask the candidate to pull the ad or remove the reference to the nonprofit. If the ad is attracting significant negative attention for the nonprofit and the candidate is unwilling to fix their misleading ad – or it is too late to do so – the nonprofit can issue a statement clarifying that it does not endorse or oppose candidates for any public office.
Does a nonprofit's board chair need to resign if they are running for office?
No. Many nonprofit staff and board leaders run for office – and many represent North Carolina communities as members of Congress, state legislators, county commissioners, mayors, and city council members. However, if someone closely affiliated with a nonprofit – like an executive director or board chair – is running for office, it's important for the nonprofit to avoid mentioning their campaign at the organization's events, in its publications, and on its website.
Can a nonprofit acknowledge an incumbent who is running for re-election who comes to a fundraising event?
Yes, but be careful. It is common for community leaders, including elected officials, to show up at nonprofit programs and fundraising events. Typically, nonprofits acknowledge officials who participate in these events. If a nonprofit is holding an event in the period leading up to an election, organizational leaders should be careful not to mention officials’ candidacies for re-election during this type of acknowledgment. The nonprofit should also remind candidates to refrain from campaigning during the event. It is also a good practice to keep the acknowledgment short and simple to avoid the appearance of endorsing the official’s re-election campaign. If possible, it's helpful to invite elected officials from both parties to the event to make it clear that your nonprofit isn't too closely tied with either of the major political parties.
Can a nonprofit give a tour to a candidate for office?
Absolutely! One of the best ways for a nonprofit to engage with elected officials - or with people aspiring to become elected officials - is to give them an opportunity to see your organization's great programs and services in action. You can even offer for them to volunteer with your organziation while they are there. Of course, you should remind them to refrain from campaigning when they're interacting with your staff, volunteers, and clients. Unless the tour is open t the public, you don't necessarily need to provide a tour for every candidate for the same office, but it never hurts to extend an invitation to other candidates, possibly at a different date or time.
Can a nonprofit identify candidates who are generally supportive of its mission without explicitly endorsing them?
No. Identifying candidates for office as being in favor of, or opposed to a policy position (particularly a broad and subjective one like being “supportive of public schools,” “anti-environment,” “for kids,” “a friend of the arts”, or “pro-charter school”) is an implied endorsement of the candidates – or an implied criticism of candidates who take a position that is perceived as contrary to the “correct” position that is consistent with the organization’s mission.
Can a 501(c)(3) nonprofit takes positions on legislative issues during an election year?
Yes, but nonprofits should proceed with caution in the period immediately before an election. Lobbying or influencing legislation (at the federal, state, or local level) is generally legal for 501(c)(3) nonprofits, although there are limits on how much lobbying charitable organizations can do. If a nonprofit is taking a clear stance on a polarizing policy issue right before an election, it should steer clear of mentioning individual politicians by name.
It’s even okay for a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to offer a legislative scorecard comparing how members of Congress, the NC General Assembly, a city council, or county board voted on specific legislation during a previous session. However, nonprofits shouldn’t publish or promote these legislative scorecards shortly before an election and should be certain to keep tallies of legislators’ specific votes on specific pieces of legislation (this can be relevant amendments to bills) rather than subjectively identifying their position as in favor of – or opposed to – a broad policy position.
You just mentioned legislative scorecards. Can a 501(c)(3) nonprofit publish a candidate scorecard based on responses to a questionnaire?
No. While it is legal for a nonprofit to ask candidates to respond to a questionnaire and to publish all candidates' unedited responses, 501(c)(3) organizations can't rate candidates' answers to these questions. This type of candidate scorecard would imply that the nonprofit supports some candidates for office more than others.
For nonprofits developing candidate questionnaires, it's also important to avoid asking leading questions that have clear "right" answers (from the nonprofit's perspective). If a nonprofit asks too many leading questions, readers of candidate responses are likely to assume that the nonprofit endorses candidates with the most "correct" answers.
Can you share an example of a nonprofit that has organized a candidate questionnaire?
Absolutely! This year, the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits asked all of North Carolina's candidates for Congress and the NC General Assembly to answer three questions about their background with nonprofits, their legislative priorities, and their thoughts on public policy solutions that could benefit nonprofits. We encourage you to check out the responses of candidates on your ballot by clicking on your county on our 100-county map. As an added bonus, you get a good test of your ability to locate your county within the state!
Can a 501(c)(3) nonprofit at least identify candidates who are generall supportive of its mission?
Generally, no. While a nonprofit might like to identify certain candidates as "for kids" or "anti-environment" or "a friend of the arts" or "pro-charter school" (or many other qualitative labels), these types of descriptions imply that the nonprofit supports or opposes candidates because their positions on issues aligns (or doesn't align) with the positions of the nonprofit. It's fine for nonprofits to assign these types of labels to elected officials – and it's even okay to give awards to government leaders who are champions for a nonprofit's mission – but it's important to avoid doing this right before an election when some of these elected officials become candidates for re-election.
Can nonprofits take positions on ballot measures?
Yes. On ballot measures – which may include local bond referenda, sales tax initiatives, and state constitutional amendments – voters are directly making laws or policy decisions. Since 501(c)(3) nonprofits are allowed to take positions on legislative issues (see the answer to the last question), they can encourage voters to support or oppose ballot measures. If your nonprofit is working with other organizations on ballot measure advocacy, you'll likely need to register as a "referendum committee" under state campaign finance laws. For statewide referenda, you would register with the NC State Board of Elections, and for local ballot measures, you would register with your county board of elections (yet another link that tests your ability to locate your county on a statewide map!).
Can a nonprofit let a political campaign rent its facilities (or use them for free) for a campaign event?
Maybe. The IRS has explained that a 501(c)(3) nonprofit can rent its facilities to candidates for office or political groups as long as it charges its usual fees and would offer the same rental arrangement to others seeking to use the same space – regardless of their political affiliation. However, the IRS guidance warns that nonprofits may be violating the law if they rent their facilities – or their mailing lists – to political candidates when they wouldn’t normally make these resources available for rent, or if they spend time customizing their resources to be used by politicians. And nonprofits can’t offer their meeting spaces or mailing lists to candidates or political parties for free.
Furthermore, nonprofits should think carefully about whether to allow political groups to rent their space. A news story about a partisan event held at a church or another 501(c)(3) organization often creates the perception that the nonprofit is doing something illegal. To be safe and to protect their reputations, many charitable nonprofits have policies in place that don’t allow political groups to rent their facilities or mailing lists. If your nonprofit is considering this type of policy, it is best to have your board vote on it.
Can a 501(c)(3) nonprofit contribute to a PAC?
No. Because political action committees exist for partisan political purposes, charitable nonprofits can’t make direct contributions to them. However, nonprofit leaders can personally contribute to PACs, and trade associations and other types of non-501(c)(3) tax-exempt entities are allowed to establish PACs and coordinate activities with certain political organizations.
Can a 501(c)(3) nonprofit have an affiliated 501(c)(4) organization?
Yes. Unlike 501(c)(3) nonprofits, 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations may make political contributions and support or oppose candidates for office, as long as this political work is not their primary activity (note that there is no clear definition of what “primary activity” means). There is also no limit on how much lobbying a 501(c)(4) organization can do.
Sometimes, a 501(c)(3) organization will create an affiliated 501(c)(4) to support its mission through significant lobbying or political programs. Typically, these affiliated (but separate) organizations share offices, staff, and resources, but have separate boards and finances. If your organization is considering creating this type of affiliate, it’s worth checking out The Connection, a publication of Bolder Advocacy (a program of the Alliance for Justice), before getting started.
Can a nonprofit participate in an event that is closely tied to one political party?
It depends. In today’s polarized political environment, there is not always a clear distinction between certain policy issues and partisan politics. Some events, like Black Lives Matters protests or the March for Life, are tied to policy agendas that closely align with the platforms of one of the major political parties. It’s generally permissible for staff, board members, and volunteers of 501(c)(3) nonprofits to participate in these events, even in their official capacities as representatives of their organizations.
Often, charitable nonprofits are asked to be co-sponsors or publicly identified supporters of these types of events. If the event isn’t explicitly tied to a political party and doesn’t expressly endorse specific candidates for office, it is probably legal for a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to do this. A nonpartisan Black Lives Matters event may well fall within this category. However, nonprofits should understand that being publicly affiliated with these events, particularly in an election year, is likely to create the appearance that they are taking sides in the election. It is often helpful for nonprofits to consider how donors, volunteers, staff, and clients who support candidates or political parties other than those who are (directly or indirectly) tied to the event may perceive their affiliation with the event. This is a challenging consideration for many organizations, and there is no clear right or wrong answer.
OK, I get all that, but I’m still not sure about our situation; can you help?
Of course! In the abstract, these rules may seem simple, but many nonprofits find that their real-life quandaries about elections don’t have obvious solutions. If we haven’t answered your question(s) here, or you simply need help talking through a scenario, we’re here to help. Feel free to reach out to David Heinen, the Center's Vice President for Public Policy and Advocacy, for more information. Or if you’re a member of the Center, you can also get answers through our Member Assistance service.