When our existence feels so deeply divided, finding words that don’t further deepen the chasm is exhausting. My desire on any given day to scream, cry, laugh, sing, celebrate, or mourn in the public square feels equal parts impossible and required. This is not just my life but the life of my peers who are leading organizations that serve the whole community – those they personally align with and those they don’t. This is the choice to lead a nonpartisan nonprofit – to honor the Johnson Amendment that separates religion and money and to respect the boundaries of the charitable (c)(3) designation as defined by the IRS – all while taking a stand for mission. This is the challenge: to lead and be bold but not to alienate.
And yet, I know from my own experience that as the divide gets bigger and the voices get louder and the rules muddier – we need to support each other. To be clear, I am focused on your mission voice, not your constitutional right to express your own opinion. But I will note that I think it is harder these days to avoid the perception of partisan speech with just about anything we say. We live in close-knit communities where the separation between who we are as people and who we are as a staff is often inextricable. In these moments, your judgment is your guide. But as nonprofit leaders, we often have questions like: How do we know what we can say? What should we say? How can we stand for our organizational values and our missions when we serve a diverse community? The answers are rooted in some fundamental rules.
Truthfully, sometimes I admire the organizations that clearly have a side – their bold statements, clear action, and never hesitating to speak out. I hear you. I see you. Thank you – this is how democracy is supposed to work. The richness of our landscape means that the nonprofit sector is full of every issue you can imagine. We are the birthplace of civic action. We are the nesting spot of politics of every stripe. We are the bedrock of social change. For every issue you care about, there is another nonprofit that is actively working to counter your mission. In our case, we are a home for it all.
With so much diversity of thought, voice, and action, it might surprise you to know that of all the 1.5 million nonprofits in this country, and the close to 6,000 of them in Alaska, we only have six things in common regardless of chartable status: 1) We are formal organizations recognized by the state and federal governments. 2) We are not the government but separate entities, regardless of how we are funded. 3) We are self-governed by boards of directors with a minimum of three people. 4) The boards are voluntary efforts. 5) When and if we make money it is not distributed to the “owners” as in a for-profit corporation but instead must be reinvested in the mission. 6) And, finally, we have a mission – something that makes it about the greater good, makes it bigger than a single person.
That’s it. This is how our democracy works best. That this third sector, which is not the government and not private enterprise, gets to focus on a larger good. The gift of this democratic trait is that our nonprofit sector exists. Let that sink in on this month of celebrating our democracy. And please don’t take that for granted – it is the hallmark of civil society.
And so, we lead. Each in our own way. Each with the voice of the mission to guide us. Each with our own tightrope to walk between our personal view of the world and our role to speak for our missions.
So where are the boundaries?
If you are a charitable 501(c)(3) organization, there are a few extra and essential rules to guide us and more tools we can adapt for all types of nonprofit organizations. The federal government sets clear and generous rules to allow charitable nonprofits to engage in advocacy and lobbying, to a point. YES, you can do it! However, the IRS strictly prohibits “participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” For organizations that have separate charitable (c)(3) and advocacy (c)(4) arms, the boundaries are even more important when it comes to the flow of money, the messengers, and the delivery.
How does my team get clarity on where to use our voice and what we might say?
Regardless of the type of nonprofit, it is 100% acceptable – even encouraged – for you to speak boldly for your mission and the people and places it impacts. If you, your staff, or your board are new to thinking about how to do this, here are a few first steps to get started.
An additional step that can help you maximize your voice and your impact is the use of a public policy screen. These screens are constructed by you, for you, about you. They can help you know your voice is aligned, but also they can ensure your organization has a clear, powerful, and grounded voice on the topics you wish to pursue. Importantly, it can also help avoid unnecessary distractions in an oftentimes very loud and crowded landscape. What I know about these screens from years of using them is: 1) They have to be deeply rooted in your mission. 2) They have to be incredibly simple even as they grapple with incredibly complicated issues. 3) They have to be easily understood and easy to use.
Some policy screens have rating systems, others begin to spell out types of civic action, and still, others are just helpful in getting clarity with the team about whether this is “your issue” or not. At Foraker we use a four-part public policy screen, rooted in our core values and our equity commitment, to assess every issue before it is adopted. Give it a try if you are new to this tool or review the screen you have. It might be just the right moment to reground in what matters the most.
What are the political candidate boundaries?
When it comes to the rules governing your 501(c)(3) organization (including houses of worship and all other charitable organizations), the IRS has set clear rules on the dos and don’ts regarding political involvement for organizations. While the Alaska Attorney General’s office and the IRS are the closest things we have to the nonprofit police, and they may be watching only for extreme violations, it is important that we live by the rules that govern our sector and help ensure that everyone else is, too. That’s how we bolster the trust and effectiveness of our collective work.
Below are a few guidelines to keep in mind.
Where can I learn more?
Know that we can help you get ready, go deeper, and become stronger in using your public policy voice. We can work with you as a leader, as a staff team, as a board, or altogether to take your next step. You can also join us for our Advocacy in Action sessions and talk with others about the issues facing Alaska’s nonprofits. We also recommend these trusted national sources to add to your understanding and motivation:
Are you ready to lead with your mission voice?
Whichever your path, we hope you are ready. Democracy needs your voice. The people and places you serve through your mission need their voice and your voice. As always, we are ready to help you understand the rules and create or refine your own tools. Bring your questions and your challenges. Let’s go!