What Election Season Means for Your Nonprofit
As engaged citizens, for many people and organizations, politics is essential. Although nonprofits have to be careful when treading into the political arena, there’s still a chance that you can live your values. Such may be the case when advancing your mission, as I will mention at the end of this article.
Politics is something that is a big part of our social space, and while nonprofits have to be careful, politics and nonprofits are not always mutually exclusive. For instance, you may well find yourself speaking to donors about politically charged topics that they hope you support, or not.
As relationships develop, many fundraisers find themselves getting into conversations with donors over meetings. Sometimes, these discussions wind their way into social justice or religious liberty issues. And now that the country is gearing up for what is going to be a highly contentious election season, chances are it’s going to get more dicey. So, the time to prepare ourselves for elections, politics and nonprofits is now.
Who Gives More to Charity? Republicans or Democrats?
It may or may not surprise you that the political ideology of donors helps determine their support of charities. It turns out that counties in the U.S. that are “overwhelmingly Republican” have higher donations to charity. However, as noted in an article in The New York Times, blue states also pay higher taxes for the benefit of the community. When taxation gets added into the mix, it boosts the charitable giving of Democrats.
Unfortunately, when a county is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, giving decreases. As highlighted in the article from The New York Times, “When counties are split evenly between the political parties, both donations and the tax burden go down. Or in the [Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly] study’s terms: Political competition decreases giving.” The even ideological split adversely affects nonprofits and people supporting the poor.
The Connection Between Voters, Politics and Nonprofits?
As reported in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, of those who are registered voters, 68% would support a political candidate who supports policies that help advance the work of charities. Of those, the segment with the highest level of support is aged 18 to 24 years of age. For the record, that’s yet another example of Millennials and Generation Z being socially aware and active.
In addition, the same study found that 75% of registered voters favored regulation that made it harder for politicians to misuse charities. This sentiment is tied to campaign finance rules. As you probably know, there has been a big debate about political nonprofits created as 501(c)4 and 501(c)6 groups and dark money. Unfortunately, this is one of many reasons that have led to a decline in trust toward all nonprofits.
Declining Nonprofit Trust
Unfortunately, trust in public institutions, including nonprofits, has dropped year after year for nearly two decades. The global communications firm, Edelman, has surveyed 33,000 people in 25 nations to assess their trust in public institutions. Again, this includes nonprofits, but also government and media. Unfortunately, in the U.S., trust in these institutions dropped by a whopping 43%, which is “the largest-ever recorded drop in the survey’s history among the general population.”
Southwest Key, which is a nonprofit working to serve unaccompanied immigrant minors coming to the U.S. from Central America and Mexico, didn’t help. The organization was enmeshed in a political and charitable scandal earlier in the year. And what happens when one organization doesn’t maintain trust is that the public begins to view all nonprofits as not being completely trustworthy.
Ensuring Your Nonprofit Remains on the Right Side of Politics
The reality is that many nonprofit leaders and fundraisers can’t avoid politics, either directly or indirectly. However, nonprofits need to ensure they maintain enough space between them and politics to not lose their tax-exempt status. If you’re a nonprofit leader, understand when and how your nonprofit group can engage in any political activity.
According to the IRS, 501(c)3 nonprofit groups are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” That’s straightforward. But there are times when nonprofits may engage in some kinds of political activities — for instance, if it helps advance the mission. Find out when those circumstances exist.
Finally, if you wonder about politics and your charitable activities, err on the side of caution.
Paul D'Alessandro, JD, CFRE, is founder and chairman of D'Alessandro, Inc., a fundraising and strategic management consulting company. He is also a lawyer and a tax law specialist for nonprofits.