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.