Nonprofits’ political role limited but critical

To the editor,

This week’s nonprofit news roundup includes a link to a June 22, 2007, New York Times article describing the role of John Edwards’ anti-poverty nonprofit, the Center for Promise and Opportunity, in the Edwards presidential campaign.

The linked article suggests that “nonprofit groups can engage in political activities and not endanger their tax-exempt status so long as those activities are not its primary purpose.”

This broad statement is somewhat misleading.

While it is true that 501(c)4 social-welfare organizations such as the Center for Promise and Opportunity may indeed engage in limited political activity, many other nonprofits are prohibited from engaging in any political campaign activity.

Under federal tax law, 501(c)3 nonprofits can lose their tax-exempt status if they intervene in political campaigns, although these organizations may lobby and may participate in non-partisan voter-education and voter engagement programs.

The category of tax-exempt 501(c)3 organizations includes a broad range of charitable nonprofits such as environmental protection organizations, social services providers, food banks, arts and cultural organizations, hospices, education providers, and disaster-relief groups.

As we approach the 2008 election, it is particularly important for all nonprofits to consider carefully their involvement in political campaigns.

Although some nonprofits can’t participate in partisan political campaign activities, nonprofits can and should have a strong influence on public policy through issue advocacy, get-out-the-vote drives, and voter education initiatives.

— David Heinen, director of public policy and advocacy, N.C. Center for Nonprofits, Raleigh, N.C.

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