Endorsing Candidates. Illegal. How to Do It.

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; more on these at end of article). 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 executives (in addition to the one quoted above) about the importance of endorsing candidates and how to do it legally. Each of them is paraphrased here, and their names are not used at their requests:

Case # 1: We want to influence voters

Case #1, a vice president for strategy: "We're a national policy organization and we have to be able to work with people on both sides on the Hill [Capitol Hill]. We're proud of our reputation for nonpartisan research. Our president endorses candidates but is careful to have his name listed on the endorsement sheets with the phrase "organizational affiliation for identification purposes only." [In other words, the individual has endorsed the candidate but the organization has not; his organization is listed to help you identify who he is.] Our state directors do the same thing in state-level elections.

"But the fact that our organization is really supporting that candidate is exactly what we want to imply. There are hundreds of thousands of voters who pay attention to who our organization supports. This way we stay legally clear but make it clear to the voters who look to us for guidance on what we think.

"And after the election, if that candidate wins, he or she has reason to be grateful to us, feel good about us. We've got a friend for our organization and our community.

"We don't always endorse someone in an election. We're strategic about when our president and state directors make their individual endorsements. We regularly send out reminders to the staff about the rules for political endorsements. But we're not dumb."

Case #2: Making friends downtown

Case #2, a COO at an affordable housing developer: "Well, my boss [the executive director] has to endorse various people who are running for various things. We wouldn't have any friends downtown if we didn't get involved in politics! And we need friends downtown for funding, for regulatory help, for NIMBY stuff [Not In My Back Yard opposition to human service facilities]. So he's pretty closely involved with a group of political types and he decides who it would be best for him to endorse for the organization's sake. Of course he always insists that he's doing the endorsement as an individual, but really, who can't figure it out?

"What this means is that I have to support whoever is running against the person that my boss is supporting! I make a personal contribution to that person's campaign and I let them know that I'm supporting that person. If I actually like the person I'll volunteer in the campaign, too, but if I can't stand the person I won't. Have there been times when I couldn't stand the person? Uh, yes. What do you think?

"The point is that my endorsement doesn't cancel out his (the executive director's) endorsement, but it does give us a foot in the door in case his candidate loses. But he usually only endorses candidates who are likely to win. If it's a toss up he won't endorse anybody, and then I don't have to either!"

Case #3: Balancing support

Case #3, an executive director: "In the election for mayor and in the election for the Congressional Representative for our district [where the organization's office is located], I'll decide who I think would be best for our clients and the people we serve. Usually that means I'll make a personal donation to the campaign, maybe hold a house party, maybe do a little volunteer work. I don't usually add my name to the endorsement list since I don't think my name is so well recognized that it would make a difference.

"At the same time I ask around the office and see who is supporting the opposing candidate. Usually there's at least one person who's supporting my candidate's opponent. So I simply ask that person to make sure the candidate knows that he or she is supporting him (or her), and that the candidate knows who he or she works for, which is our organization. I don't ask anyone to support someone they don't like, and I don't ask them to make a donation, but I do say, 'Attend at least one event for your candidate, and introduce yourself and let the candidate know you work for us.'

"If that person's candidate wins, we'll start by having our staffperson send the new elected [official] a congratulatory note, and remind them about our organization, what we do, and drop some names [of people they] will recognize who are on our staff or board."

In this article we are not saying that nonprofits should use these strategies: we are saying that nonprofits should consider these strategies. Talk with board members about how they can be effective electoral advocates and what would be an appropriate role for the organization's staff leadership.

In summary

In a meeting with then-Mayor of San Francisco Willie Brown, a group of nonprofit leaders came to discuss the human services budget, armed with evaluations and studies showing the importance and impact of their work. Brown swept it all aside: "How many votes can you bring?"

Right about now you might be wondering what a lawyer expert in nonprofit law would say. Blue Avocado spoke to attorney Eric Gorovitz of Adler & Colvin: "The rules in this area [candidate elections] are unclear. And because they're unclear they're potentially chilling: charities don't know what's okay and what's not okay, so they stay out of activities that may actually be okay. We counsel lots of charities about these issues."

The bottom line? "The rules are unclear, and making a mistake is costly. But careful charities can safely participate in elections in many ways."

Frances Kunreuther, executive director of the Building Movement Project, commented, "When I was an executive director we had politicians come speak at our events, and we thought that was terrific. But we never thought about the things that are in this article. I kind of knew that members of my board were supporting various candidates, but it isn't something we discussed. Now I would make sure we discussed it."

Being active political citizens is both strategic and crucial to the issues that our nonprofits address. If we in the nonprofit sector see a sign that says, "Speed Limit 65" we're likely to stay at 45 MPH just to be sure. We do need to stay within the law, but we can't be naive either. Be smart and strategic about political endorsements, but don't walk away from this crucial vehicle for supporting our organizations and our constituents.

See also in Blue Avocado:

Author Jan Masaoka is Editor of Blue Avocado. She looks forward to your comments posted below.

Comments (11)

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this thought provoking article. Our organization is becoming more politically involved and the tips provided are helpful. With 2012 around the corner, we need to become savvy pretty darn quick!

    Apr 26, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Our organization wants to have someone running for city council act as an hon. chair for our annual fundrasier. Are we out of line?

    Apr 26, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this. I come from a very political background --- used to be a congressional aide. Adjusting to nonprofit rules has been hard; it's not the way I learned the game. This gives me some avenues to pursue that I was unaware of.

    Apr 26, 2011
  • I love the idea of transparency and bringing forward those "behind-closed-doors" conversations and strategies that some people are having but not everyone knows about. I would really love to see this topic - the role of nonprofits in politics - covered more and discussed in-depth from a variety of angles. Nonprofits are mission-driven organizations intended to serve the public good. Politics are driven by winning and re-election. I have seen the more political a nonprofit gets, the farther away it can drift from its mission; and the game of politics makes it difficult to remain a mission-driven elected official. I question the assumption that endorsement of candidates is the most effective thing for a nonprofit to do, especially when the the topic of this newsletter was low profile/high impact. Politics is often high profile/low impact. I'm a nonprofit Executive Director who wants to be Governor of California one day. I'm a part of a program that trains Democratic women to run for public office. I have my own political aspirations, but I have yet to really see how more direct engagement with elections actually helps a nonprofit achieve mission success. I'd really love to see some stories, conversation, lessons learned about that.

    Apr 26, 2011
  • Anonymous

    What I didn't see mentioned in the article is one of the rationales for why non-profits should not be directly influencing elections: the nps' receive federally subsidized contribution income and so tax-avoided dollars should not go for candidates. Makes sense and it is the current rule.
    Yes, there are gray area practices of candidate support per individuals within or tied to nonprofits or in organizations doing"public education" on issues. But this doesn't seem to be a crisis and nonprofits educating the public is very legit. And a spectrum across black, white and even some gray of (visible) participation may be OK. And yes, big money interests can bury/buy, candidates or their opponents in contributions and media influence. Plus, those damn corporate loopholes be it revolving door lobbyists or no-taxes paid by Fortune 500 companies. The ugly imperfect side of our democracy.
    Want real populism and a more level playing field to start from? Limit contributions to $100 each from anybody or for any candidate! Or just ban them altogether and publicly finance candidates. What candidates can and do watse on their own races is obscene.
    As for our Supreme Court not liking that idea: I have no solution except wait 30-50 years til when The Enlightenment arrives.
    It is permissible for non-profits to lobby -somewhat. But there are restrictions on lobbying and we need to remind politically active nps to know them. yes, "Nonprofits can lobby" but we might always add an asterick for "according to the rules."
    The Blue Avocado article seems to give a big wink for nonprofits to quietly influence elections. Careful.
    Nonprofits in some ways are still within a golden era in the US. I know some would disagree. We enjoy freedoms and flexibility that some arch-conservatives want to handcuff. While giving unrestricted reign to big money and big power even more so. We need to appreciate and protect what advantages we enjoy, in part, by behaving well and respecting the rules and advocating for more reform.

    Apr 27, 2011
  • Anonymous

    As someone who has worked in nonprofit fundraising for 15 years, I continue to be fascinated by the ignorance of nonprofit leaders when it comes to understanding the people who pay your bills, AKA the donors. Before you, as a NPO leader, personally back a candidate or write that Op-Ed, you should really ask yourself whether your donors are more or less likely to also back that candidate/opinion. If they don't, you run the risk of losing their contributions. I have seen it happen.

    Donors who back charities with strong ties to political hot topics - like those on either side of the abortion issue - expect those NPOs and their leaders to push the 501(c)(3) political envelope. However, if you are a nonprofit working towards a cause that is not such a political issue, then my advice is to focus on advocating where your donors expect you to be involved and support your personal candidates and causes on your own time, anonymously. If you can't do that, then please leave the NPO sector and go get a job with your political party of choice.

    Apr 27, 2011
  • Anonymous

    What about ballot initiatives and referendums? Same restrictions apply? What about pending legislation, bills?
    Elected leaders are not always the best or most direct way to influence policy and programs and funding. Ideally, our constituencies are strong enough that we persuade ANY office holder on the merit of our position.

    And:

    The Washington Post reports today that Asians and Latino mostly sat out the 2010 mid term elections, did not demonstrate muscle, did not vote.

    Apr 27, 2011
  • Anonymous

    You didn't mention the side-by-side comparison option. Develop a set list of questions (What would you do to improve housing for the poor of our community - or whatever your issue is) and send an identical set to each candidate. When you receive the answers, you can publish them on your website, newsletter, whatever forum you use - even if only one candidate responded.

    Apr 27, 2011
  • The Alliance for Justice, one of the leading organizations doing research and educating nonprofit leaders on political advocacy issues, urges caution in the candidate questionnaire area. Questionnaires that are narrowly focussed on one issue, have leading questions or request action pledges are not recommended. If not all candidates respond, even if they were all asked, there is some risk in publishing the answers.

    They have a PDF of their full recommendations on this specific point, and their whole web site is a very thorough, though it definitely represents pushing the envelope as far as possible while staying well within the legal boundaries. This article is about pushing the envelope and stretching the elastic of the boundaries. Leaders have to decide if the risk is worth any possible advancement of mission.

    May 02, 2011
  •  I really like this idea of warming up all the candidates. Our misfortune is trying to find even one that supports single payer health care.

    Apr 30, 2011
  • Anonymous

    If this changes, churches will get to do this also.

    Jul 17, 2011

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