501(c)(3) organization "may not
participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of
statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any
candidate for public office."
"Whether an organization is participating or
intervening, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of or
in opposition to any candidate for public office depends upon all of the facts
and circumstances of each case. For example, certain 'voter education'
activities, including preparation and distribution of certain voter guides,
conducted in a nonpartisan manner may not constitute prohibited political
activities under section 501(c)(3) of the Code.
"Other so-called 'voter education' activities may be
proscribed by the statute …if they show a bias or preference in content or
structure with respect to the views of a particular candidate."
Congregations may not: issue letters of endorsement or opposition printed on congregation
letterhead; distribute campaign literature at congregational events; display
campaign signs on congregation property, or engage in any other activities that
could be construed as endorsing or opposing a candidate. This applies to
elections at all levels, from school board to national offices, regardless of
whether or not it is a partisan election.
not: contribute money to candidates, solicit contributions on a
candidate's behalf, donate to candidate's political action committees, or create
political action committees of their own. Individuals may not fundraise for
candidates at the congregation (except in compliance with the guidelines in the
next section), or use congregational letterhead or other official materials for
The question of whether an activity constitutes
participation or intervention in a political campaign may also arise in the
context of a business activity of the organization, such as selling or renting
of mailing lists, the leasing of office space, or the acceptance of paid
political advertising. In this context, some of the factors to be considered in
determining whether the organization has engaged in political campaign
intervention include the following:
The political campaign
intervention prohibition is not intended to restrict free expression on
political matters by leaders of organizations speaking for themselves, as
individuals. Nor are leaders prohibited from speaking about important issues of
public policy. However, for their organizations to remain tax exempt under
section 501(c)(3), leaders cannot make partisan comments in official
organization publications or at official functions of the organization.
Example 4: President B is the
president of University K, a section 501(c)(3) organization. University K publishes a monthly alumni newsletter that is distributed to all alumni of the
university. In each issue, President B has a column titled "My Views." The month
before the election, President B states in the "My Views" column, “It is my
personal opinion that Candidate U should be reelected.” For that one issue,
President B pays from his personal funds the portion of the cost of the
newsletter attributable to the "My Views" column. Even though he paid part of
the cost of the newsletter, the newsletter is an official publication of the
university. Because the endorsement appeared in an official publication of
University K, it constitutes campaign intervention by University
Example 5: Minister C is the
minister of Church L, a section 501(c)(3) organization and Minister C is well known in the community. Three weeks before the election, he attends a
press conference at Candidate V's campaign headquarters and states that
Candidate V should be reelected. Minister C does not say he is speaking on behalf of Church L. His endorsement is reported on the front page of the
local newspaper and he is identified in the article as the minister of Church
L. Because Minister C did not make the endorsement at an official church
function, in an official church publication or otherwise use the church's
assets, and did not state that he was speaking as a representative of Church L,
his actions do not constitute campaign intervention by Church L.
Depending on the facts and circumstances, an organization may invite political candidates to speak at
its events without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status. Political candidates may be invited in their capacity as candidates, or in their individual capacity (not
as a candidate). Candidates may also appear without an invitation at
organization events that are open to the public.
When a candidate is invited to speak at an organization event in his or her capacity as a political
candidate, factors in determining whether the organization participated or
intervened in a political campaign include the following:
In determining whether
candidates are given an equal opportunity to participate, the nature of the
event to which each candidate is invited will be considered, in addition to the
manner of presentation. For example, an organization that invites one candidate
to speak at its well attended annual banquet, but invites the opposing candidate
to speak at a sparsely attended general meeting, will likely have violated the
political campaign prohibition, even if the manner of presentation for both
speakers is otherwise neutral.
When an organization
invites several candidates for the same office to speak at a public forum,
factors in determining whether the forum results in political campaign
intervention include the following:
Situation 7. President E is the president of Society N, a historical society that is a section 501(c)(3)
organization. In the month prior to the election, President E invites the three
Congressional candidates for the district in which Society N is located to
address the members, one each at a regular meeting held on three successive
weeks. Each candidate is given an equal opportunity to address and field
questions on a wide variety of topics from the members.
Society N's publicity announcing the dates for each of the candidate’s speeches and President E's
introduction of each candidate include no comments on their qualifications or
any indication of a preference for any candidate. Society N's actions do not
constitute political campaign intervention.
Situation 8. The facts
are the same as in Situation 7 except that there are four candidates in the race
rather than three, and one of the candidates declines the invitation to speak.
In the publicity announcing the dates for each of the candidate's speeches,
Society N includes a statement that the order of the speakers was determined at
random and the fourth candidate declined the Society's invitation to speak.
President E makes the same statement in his opening remarks at each of the
meetings where one of the candidates is speaking. Society N's actions do not
constitute political campaign intervention.
Situation 9. Minister F is the minister of Church O,
a section 501(c)(3) organization. The Sunday before the November election,
Minister F invites Senate Candidate X to preach to her congregation during
worship services. During his remarks, Candidate X states, "I am asking not only
for your votes, but for your enthusiasm and dedication, for your willingness to
go the extra mile to get a very large turnout on Tuesday." Minister F invites no
other candidate to address her congregation during the Senatorial campaign.
Because these activities take place during official church services, they are
attributed to Church O. By selectively providing church facilities to allow
Candidate X to speak in support of his campaign, Church O's actions constitute
political campaign intervention.
Candidates may also appear or speak at organization events in a non-candidate capacity. For instance, a political candidate may be a public figure who is invited to speak
because he or she: (a) currently holds, or formerly held, public office; (b) is
considered an expert in a non political field; or (c) is a celebrity or has led
a distinguished military, legal, or public service career. A candidate may
choose to attend an event that is open to the public, such as a lecture, concert
or worship service. The candidate's presence at an organization-sponsored event does not, by itself, cause the organization to be engaged in political campaign
intervention. However, if the candidate is publicly recognized by the
organization, or if the candidate is invited to speak, factors in determining
whether the candidate's appearance results in political campaign intervention
include the following:
For scenarios of what is or is not political campaign intervention in this area, see situations 10-13 in
IRS Ruling 2007-41, p. 7-8.
Voter guides are usually pamphlets
or other short documents, often in chart form, intended to help voters compare
candidates' positions on a set of issues. Preparing or distributing a
voter guide may violate the prohibition against political campaign intervention
if the guide focuses on a single issue or narrow range of issues, or if the
questions are structured to reflect bias. Although any document that
identifies candidates and their positions close in time to an election has the
potential to result in political campaign intervention, preparation or
distribution of voter guides, because of their nature, present a particular risk
for noncompliance. The following factors are key considerations in whether
a voter guide can be distributed to educate voters without violating the
prohibition on political campaign intervention:
In assessing whether a voter guide
is unbiased and nonpartisan, every aspect of the voter guide's format, content
and distribution must be taken into consideration. If the organization's
position on one or more issues is set out in the guide so that it can be
compared to the candidates' positions, the guide will constitute political
An organization may be asked to
distribute voter guides prepared by a third party. Each organization that
distributes one or more voter guides is responsible for its own actions.
If the voter guide is biased, distribution of the voter guide is an act of
political campaign intervention. Therefore, an organization should reach
its own independent conclusion about whether a voter guide prepared by itself or
prepared by a third party covers a broad scope of issues and uses neutral form
Section 501(c)(3) organizations are
permitted to conduct certain voter education activities (including the
presentation of public forums and the publication of voter education
guides) if they are carried out in a nonpartisan manner. In addition, section
501(c)(3) organizations may encourage people to participate in the electoral
process through voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, conducted
in a nonpartisan manner. On the
other hand, voter education or registration activities conducted in a biased
manner that favors (or opposes) one or more candidates is
Example 1: B, a section
501(c)(3) organization that promotes community involvement, sets up a booth at
the state fair where citizens can register to vote. The signs and banners
in and around the booth give only the name of the organization, the date of the
next upcoming statewide election, and notice of the opportunity to
register. No reference to any candidate or political party is made by the
volunteers staffing the booth or in the materials available at the booth, other
than the official voter registration forms which allow registrants to select a
party affiliation. B is not engaged in political campaign intervention when
it operates this voter registration booth.
Example 2: C is a section
501(c)(3) organization that educates the public on environmental
issues. Candidate G is running for the state legislature and an important
element of her platform is challenging the environmental policies of the
incumbent. Shortly before the election, C sets up a telephone bank to call
registered voters in the district in which Candidate G is seeking
election. In the phone conversations, C's representative tells the voter
about the importance of environmental issues and asks questions about the
voter's views on these issues. If the voter appears to agree with the
incumbent's position, C's representative thanks the voter and ends the
call. If the voter appears to agree with Candidate G's position, C’s
representative reminds the voter about the upcoming election, stresses the
importance of voting in the election and offers to provide transportation to the
polls. C is engaged in political campaign intervention when it conducts
this get-out-the-vote drive.
In order to qualify as nonpartisan, voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives cannot be biased for or against any candidate or party.
Some commentators suggest that it is acceptable for nonprofits to focus
their efforts in nonpartisan ways, such as on low-turnout areas, low-income populations, minority populations, students, and/or the areas or people the
For more information contact socialjustice @ uua.org.
This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations.
Please consider making a donation today.
Last updated on Thursday, September 13, 2012.
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