Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Guidelines and Sample Policy on Nonprofit Political Activity

In these contentious political times, those of us in the social services field may feel the need to be more vocal about policies that effect our clients and our missions, while simultaneously facing pressure to "not rock the boat" or be controversial.

Perhaps you have board members who (wrongly) believe that nonprofits cannot play any role in politics, and don't want you to take a stand on those very questions where your voice is most needed to be heard.

With mid-term elections barely six weeks out, the organization where I've been the Executive Director for the last 3-1/2 years has been asked to put our name in support of a couple of local ballot initiatives. To explain the law and put my board at ease, I have gone through several sources to put together the following guidelines and policy for engaging in political activity.

Please feel free to borrow and adapt this policy for use in your organization.

Policy and Guidelines for Political Activities

[THIS ORGANIZATION] encourages all of its board, staff, volunteers, and clients to be active and informed citizens, and supports the individual capacity of all to execute their prerogatives as citizens.

However, as a nonprofit corporation whose activities are regulated in part by Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, the Organization is prohibited from participating in political campaigns for candidates and is restricted in conducting certain lobbying activities. This does not restrict [THIS ORGANIZATION] from taking part in limited issue advocacy related to our mission, except in regards to spending limits for lobbying activities.

Violation of IRS regulations could have serious ramifications for the Organization, including loss of its tax-exempt status. Therefore, we provide these guidelines on the permitted use and restrictions of [THIS ORGANIZATION]'s resources for politically related activity by its board, staff, and volunteers.

These guidelines cannot address every potential situation. [THIS ORGANIZATION] reserves the right to amend or modify these guidelines at its discretion or as it deems necessary to comply with the regulations governing political activities of 501(c)(3) entities.

Allowable Activities:

Endorsing Ballot Measures

Ballot measure advocacy is an attempt to influence the passage or defeat of a law or constitutional amendment - not the election or defeat of a candidate. 501(c)(3) organizations are free to takes sides on ballot measures as a lobbying activity, subject to normal limits on lobbying. Ballot measure advocacy is a first amendment issue, not a matter of tax law. Any organization or individual is free to express their opinion for or against a proposed law or constitutional amendment.

As a 501(c)(3) organization that does not file the 501(h) form, [THIS ORGANIZATION]'s activity in this regard falls under the "insubstantial part test," meaning that [THIS ORGANIZATION] may only spend an "insubstantial" amount of money on lobbying efforts. "Insubstantial" is generally assumed to be 3-5% of annual spending. Any costs associated with endorsing or advocating for ballot measures, including related staff time, must fall under this threshold.

[THIS ORGANIZATION] chooses to only endorse and promote those ballot initiatives and proposals which are directly related to its mission and to the benefit of our clients. These would include, but not be limited to, initiatives related to [LIST KEY TOPICS RELATED TO YOUR MISSION].

The Executive Director is empowered to add [THIS ORGANIZATION]'s name and logo to any "sign-on letter" in favor of a ballot measure meeting the above criteria and initiated by a nonprofit partner or nonprofit coalition of which [THIS ORGANIZATION] is a part.

The Executive Director will bring all other endorsements, and any lobbying activity that will incur any expenses, to the Board of Directors for approval before signing or taking any action. If a timely endorsement is required before the next regularly scheduled Board meeting, unanimous approval by the Board officers (President, Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer) will suffice.

Promoting Voting

Nonprofit organizations classified as 501(c)(3) public charities may conduct nonpartisan "get-out-the-vote" activities and voter registration without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status. It is a legitimate charitable activity to support voter engagement and educate the public about the importance of voting.

[THIS ORGANIZATION] encourages all Board, staff, and volunteers to participate in all elections. We especially uphold and encourage the right of our clients, and all marginalized populations, to take an active role in our democracy. [THIS ORGANIZATION]'s staff may distribute voter registration materials and/or non-partisan voter information guides to clients, and/or allow other organizations to conduct nonpartisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote activities within the program site.

In these ways, [THIS ORGANIZATION] affirms its commitment to the "Vote with Your Mission" campaign of CalNonprofits. More information on this initiative can be found at

Running for Office

Board Members and staff may decide to run for public office while associated with [THIS ORGANIZATION], as is their right. To ensure compliance with IRS regulations and Organization policy, including conflict of interest and/or a conflict of commitment, a plan to manage potential conflicts must be established upon declaration of candidacy.

Plans must ensure that other Board Members and staff do not experience a compromised work environment or feel pressure to comply with the political goals of candidates.

An employee intending to seek public office must inform his/her supervisor and the Executive Director to develop a plan to avoid conflicts of interest. It is requested that this notification come as soon as the employee is considering becoming a candidate, but, in all cases, notification must be made no later than upon declaring candidacy.

In any case, the Board or staff member running for office may not solicit or accept funds or contributions for campaigns (their own or someone else's) from donors identified through donor rolls or other [THIS ORGANIZATION] records or directories.

Appearances by Candidates

Candidates for public office or their designees are welcome to appear at the program site or [THIS ORGANIZATION]'s sponsored events for non-campaign related activities, such as an educational or informational talk to [THIS ORGANIZATION], our clients, or our supporters.

Such appearances must satisfy the following criteria:

* The individual(s) is/are chosen to speak for reasons other than candidacy for public office.
* The individual speaks in a non-candidate capacity.
* The event and organization maintains a nonpartisan atmosphere.
* No specific organized campaigning activity occurs in connection with the event.
* The event involving a candidate should not be dictated by, or put under the control of, a candidate, their representatives, or any outside organization.

In no case shall [THIS ORGANIZATION] organize an event for the sole purpose of the promotion of a single candidate for any office.

Non-Allowable Activities:

Endorsing Candidates

[This Organization] will not endorse or promote individual candidates or political parties in any election, at any level of government, or take part in any form of partisan political activity.

Substantial Lobbying

While we affirm our free speech rights to engage in nonpartisan issue advocacy, such as endorsing ballot initiatives and engaging in get-out-the-vote activities, we recognize that as a 501(c)(3) organization that does not file form 501(h), [THIS ORGANIZATION] may only spend an "insubstantial" amount of money on such activities that may be interpreted as lobbying.

"Insubstantial" is generally assumed to be 3-5% of annual spending. Any costs associated with any such activities, including related staff time, must fall under this threshold on an annual, Fiscal Year, basis.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Challenges of an Interim Executive Director
Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Kirsten Bullock for her Nonprofit Leaders Network podcast. The conversation turned quickly to my experiences over the years as an Interim Executive Director.

Whether your organization is thinking of using an Interim ED, or whether you are a consultant thinking of getting into this sort of work, I hope you will find some advice in this conversation that will help you navigate the relationship successfully.

We talked about staff and board relationships, priority setting, advice gathering, communications, self-care, and the million other considerations to think about when entering into an Interim situation.

Kirsten asked great questions, and the time on the phone with her passed quickly. And she sent me a nice box of cookies when it was all over.

You can listen to our interview, as well as other great podcasts, at the Nonprofit Leaders Network website.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Back to the Future of Philanthropy

I received a kind email from Erik Anderson, of the Donor Dreams Blog, suggesting I take on the subject of The Future of Philanthropy for this month's nonprofit blog carnival. Easy peasy, right? Well maybe not.

In Erik's call for Future Philanthropy blogs he links to a TED Talk from 2007: Katherine Fulton on You are the future of philanthropy. I've watched the video a couple of times now, and Ms. Fulton makes some great points on several philanthropic trends (and I recommend you also watch it), but it didn't really help me answer the question of what I viewed the future of philanthropy to be.

Ms. Fulton begins her exploration with the establishment of the modern foundation form in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century by the Rockefellers, Carnegies, et al, but, indeed, the concept of philanthropy goes back to ancient Greece, meaning "love of humanity," and encompasses the giving of time, heart, and soul, as well as currency.

Even the story of "modern philanthropy" predates Rockefeller by at least 150 years, with the establishment of the Foundling Hospital in London. Established for the "education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children," the Foundling Hospital is considered by many to be the first modern charity.

Wikimedia Commons
Not long after, "a group of London merchants and gentlemen" met to "discuss a plan to supply two or three thousand seafarers for the navy," founding the Marine Society. They, of course, sought sponsors and donors to support their efforts. Certainly that qualifies not only as philanthropy, but as professional fundraising, and maybe even crowd-funding.

Ms. Fulton references Warren Buffet, and another of her slides bears the image of Richard Branson, but what really differentiates these modern philanthropic leaders from Rockefeller and Carnegie, or even from the gentlemen who founded the Marine Society? Is it their motivation, is it their philosophy, or is it their tools?

Ms. Fulton describes the philanthropy of 100 years ago as "closed-small-slow-fragmented-short" and contrasts that with the "open-big-fast-connected-long" world of today's philanthropy.

"Closed-small-slow-fragmented-short" may seem a somewhat apt description of old philanthropy from today's perspective, but there's no evidence that it was seen as such in 1905, or that it was meant to be "closed-small-slow-fragmented-short" by intentional design.

What draws that comparison is not any change in the concept of philanthropy, it is all about the tools. 120 years ago, Andrew Carnegie building libraries across America was very open, connected, big,  long, and somewhat radical (okay, it probably wasn't "fast," but what was then?). Today his approach might be to distribute iPads to students instead, but his philanthropic ideals would likely be the same.

Even the much vaunted "democratization of philanthropy" is nothing new. If you read my blog, you know I absolutely love crowd-giving sites such as Benevolent, etc., but at their core, they are simply using new tools to expand upon the giving circles of previous decades that were, themselves, just updates of the old mutual aid societies that go back at least 250 years.

I guess what I'm saying is, the impulse to philanthropy is as old as society itself, and that the forms it takes always includes both, the "small and informal" (mutual aid to crowd-funding), and the "large and influential" (Carnegie to Gates). What evolves are the methodologies and tools.

There are certainly trends - I've lived through several: money for technical assistance, money for programs only, highly focused outcomes, more data, less data, forcing mergers, encouraging cooperation, and a few others - but those are changes in bureaucracy, not philanthropy.

So, I suppose my predictions for the Future of Philanthropy are as follows:
  • New developments in technology - particularly communications technology - will continue to drive changes in how nonprofits and donors discover each other and build relationships.
  • Trends in giving will continue to be driven by "thought leaders" emerging out of the currently dominant business sector (IE: Carnegie's steel then, Gates' high tech now).
  • Despite the attention given to the "thought leaders" above, the real work of creating social change and improving the lives of ordinary people will always come in the form of peer-to-peer giving and assistance.
  • Solutions-based philanthropy will continue to lose out to empathy-based charity (IE: eliminating poverty versus assisting the poor) as long as total giving remains at only 2% of GDP.
Solve that last problem, and then we can talk about real change and a brighter future.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Aligning Nonprofit Strategy with Donor Preferences

Last week I attended the "What Really Matters" webinar from Abila to discuss the findings in their latest Donor Engagement Study. There were a few surprises in their latest findings, and several confirmations of what we've always known, or at least should have sensed.

On of the key points that should be obvious, but bears repeating, is that Content is King. What you say is more important than the frequency with which you communicate, or even what medium or channel you are using.

And, when it comes to that content, what donors are most interested in is stories. Again, many of us have been harping on this for years, but too many nonprofits have still not heard the message: Your data may help get a signature on a large check, but to get to that point you need to share just one personal story of how your nonprofit has helped one individual.

When it comes to Abila's findings that should come as a wake-up call, the most startling is the how misaligned most organizations are with the preferences of their donors.

For example, while many nonprofits are dividing their donor lists by gift range, and are differentiating their strategies for large versus small donors, only 3% of groups are always dividing and strategizing differently by age group.

Age of donors matters! Each generation has different communications preferences, from what channel (mail, email, social media...), to the frequency, to the message. If you have the same strategy for reaching millennials as you do for their grandparents, one of them (at least) isn't going to be impressed.

As presenters Tad Druart and Rich Dietz pointed out, our donors are consumers as well, and they are used to communications from companies like Amazon or eBay that are highly differentiated and targeted based on dozens of factors. When we, as nonprofits, treat all donors like just another member of the herd, donors are noticing and turning away from us.

There's a lot more in the report, but I'll leave it up to you to discover. You can visit the website to download the full report (it's free).

Friday, April 24, 2015

Did LinkedIn help nonprofits & leave nonprofit professionals behind?

Some time back I blogged about LinkedIn's (then new) Board Connect Service as a great new resource for nonprofit organizations. In the couple of years since, LinkedIn has built upon and expanded their vision of "LinkedIn for Good" and their offerings to nonprofits. I have taken part in a couple of free nonprofit technology trainings provided by LinkedIn and have enjoyed meeting their enthusiastic and caring team.

One of the great nonprofit tools they have is being able to search for professionals who are interested in volunteering or board leadership opportunities by their job skills, education, location, industry, and a host of other factors. Related to that, nonprofits can also use LinkedIn's job posting function to advertise for volunteers at 90% discounts.

As great as that is, and as much as I recommend the organizations I work with check that out, that's also the source of a potential problem.

It has recently been pointed out to me that these volunteer listings appear along with regular employment opportunities when LinkedIn members conduct a search.

On the plus side - and I'm sure this is why it was designed this way - it puts your volunteer listings alongside in front of job hunters who have not previously thought about volunteering. It grabs their attention and presents them with an opportunity they might otherwise have missed.

On the down side, for those of us who are nonprofit professionals, and who may be looking for (paid) career opportunities, it has made LinkedIn nearly useless as a job hunting tool. Simply put, the number of volunteer opportunities that come up in any search so greatly outnumber the (real) jobs that weeding through them all is a frustrating mess.

After learning of this problem I did a few test searches, from broad searches to highly filtered narrow ones. Each time I was overwhelmed with volunteer positions. In most of the searches I was finding only a handful of paid jobs for each 100 volunteer listings.

Using their advanced search tools, I was able to choose only jobs for experience levels of "mid-senior," "executive," and "director." While that dramatically cut down the total number of results, it still included volunteer opportunities.

To narrow my search to what should have only been paid opportunities, I searched for "Industry: Nonprofit," "Function: Consulting," and "Location: within 50 miles." Of the 146 results, there were only 4 paid jobs, and they were all listed on the final page of results. Of the four jobs, one was listed as being in Beirut, Lebanon... a little greater than 50 miles from my zip code.

It seems that with all their zeal for helping nonprofit causes, LinkedIn has neglected to take into account that it takes professionals who are dedicated full-time to those causes to make the organizations function.

Two suggestions:

1 - LinkedIn should make it easy to filter out volunteer opportunities. Yes, they do offer the ability to filter listings by salary range, but that is a premium feature to paid members only ($29.99/month), perhaps out of the budget for many nonprofit staff.

2 - LinkedIn could expand their LinkedIn for Good efforts by offering discounts to nonprofits on regular job ads as well. Perhaps not the same 90% they discount for volunteer opportunities, but something close to it. I know there are nonprofits hiring that I'm not seeing in my search results. Price is a factor.