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Nonprofits advised on election-year lobbying

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Elizabeth FloydNCpubpolforum

RALEIGH, N.C. — The IRS received more funding this year to tighten enforcement on improper election intervention by nonprofits, so knowing the rules is important, says David Heinen of the N.C. Center for Nonprofits.

The role of the IRS in these key activities is not only punitive, but preventive, Heinen, director of public policy and advocacy, said March 27 at the center’s annual public-policy forum that drew 260 people at the Brownstone Hotel in Raleigh.

Since it launched a Political Activities Compliance Initiative in 2004, the agency has received over 400 complaints and investigated at least 232, Heinen said.

Though people most often link churches with improper election intervention, he said, six in 10 of groups the IRS investigated were other types of nonprofits.

Such investigations, even when dropped, can cause pain and heartache for the targeted groups, he said.

To protect themselves while not giving up valuable advocacy opportunities, Heinen said, nonprofits should carefully adhere to the principles laid out in a 13-page revenue ruling the IRS released last summer as a guide to permissible nonprofit lobbying practices.

Advocacy around ballot initiatives or referendums is fair game, he said. “Everyone that’s voting on a referendum is a lawmaker,” he said, “so this isn’t campaign intervention; this is just direct lobbying.”

Issue advocacy around bills before state lawmakers is permissible up to 30 days before a primary, or 60 days before a general election, even if the particular legislator a group is urging its constituency to contact is running for reelection, he said.

However, nonprofits should be aware they will have to make the Federal Election Commission aware of such advocacy efforts and disclose contributions of more than $1,000 as public information, Heinen said.

Getting out the vote, including voter registration, polling-place information and election-day transportation, is legal, but “you’ve got to do it in a way that’s fair and doesn’t favor one candidate,” he said.

Similarly, nonprofits planning candidate appearances should extend invitations to all candidates and ensure that no candidate is put at an advantage at the event.

And while nonprofit and community leaders can have their own public opinions about a candidate, they cannot voice those opinions in their professional capacities.

“One of the key things to understand is when you’re doing something on behalf of an organization, you really can break yourself into two entities,” he said.

But this requires attention to details, such as not using office email, phones or printers to promote one’s personal political agenda, he said.

The revenue ruling also includes information on providing candidates with access to contact information for a nonprofit’s constituents and linking to websites with political content.

Intervention in elections mainly is regulated by federal law, but for those registered as lobbyists, or anyone who spends 5 percent or more of working hours lobbying lawmakers, one North Carolina law applies.

The lobbying and ethics law passed in 2006 created a gift ban that prevents those who officially lobby either legislative or executive branches from contributing either directly or as a fundraising organizer to candidates in either governmental branch.

All nonprofits should make sure their staff members are registered to vote and have time off both to vote and volunteer on election day, Heinen said.

“It’s really a great way to be involved in a nonpartisan way in elections in your communities,” he said. “It may not be directly involved in what you’re doing on a regular basis, but it’s a great way to help your community.”

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