Issue advocacy is one of the oldest forms of speech, whether we are aware when it’s happening or not. Generally, issue advocacy is focused on policy concerns as opposed to being focused on supporting or opposing candidates (or their campaigns) for public office.
As you may be aware, organizations tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code are prohibited from participating in any activity that opposes or supports a candidate for public office. This prohibition extends beyond just federal candidates and applies to both state and local candidates as well. Prohibited activities might include something as straightforward as a statement of support for Candidate X to be reelected but may be as vague as allowing a candidate use of your Section 501(c)(3) organization’s building to prepare campaign mailers.
In election years, the bright line that usually exists between permissible issue advocacy and prohibited campaign intervention gets blurry. The Internal Revenue Service has indicated that it will consider all facts and circumstances surrounding Section 501(c)(3) communications to determine if the activity is permissible or not, including but not limited to whether the communication(s):
• Identifies or mentions a candidate(s);
• Approves or disapproves of a candidate’s position on an issue;
• Is delivered in close proximity to an election;
• Mentions an upcoming vote or election;
• Is similar to platforms or issues raised by a candidate(s); and
• Is part of a series of communications on similar issues made independent of an upcoming vote or election; among others.
If you work for, volunteer for, or support a Section 501(c)(3) organization (including churches, and other houses of worship) and have questions about what types of communications might be problematic for the organization to make, we are happy to discuss the organization’s activities with you to ensure that the organization’s federal tax-exemption is not at risk!
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