I frequently like to remind our 501(c)(3) clients about the importance of advocating on their issues through lobbying and the legitimacy of their role in doing so. But when we encourage lobbying, we point out the distinction between lobbying on issues and the prohibition on political activity. The rule against political activity has been known as the Johnson Amendment because it was added to the tax code under his administration. As you likely know, President Trump has proposed to eliminate that distinction and allow all 501(c)(3)s to engage in electoral politics – – i.e., support or oppose a candidate for public office.
We think this is a bad idea. Regardless of where your views fall on the political spectrum, allowing 501(c)(3)s to fund politics severely harms the charitable sector. It would erode trust in the sector and redirect contributions from directly addressing the deep need in our world. In my view, we should have less money in politics not more!! I hope you will speak out in opposition to this proposal on behalf of the people you serve and the causes you promote.
Advocates for the change cite free speech – – claiming that the prohibition muzzles them by prohibiting endorsement of candidates. Free speech makes for a compelling talking point but that is not the only issue here. Keep in mind that our Constitution’s First Amendment also requires a separation between the church and our government. That is a “1st Amendment” issue too.
As one commentator from Inside Philanthropy put it:
But make no mistake: This is not mainly a fight over free speech. This is about political power . . .More broadly, what’s at stake here is the separation of politics and philanthropy, along with public trust in the charitable sector. This sector, already viewed with growing uneasiness by many Americans at a populist moment, can ill afford to be seen as a conduit for partisan spending—which is exactly the risk, here. https://www.insidephilanthropy.com/home/2017/2/6/the-biggest-loser-from-repealing-the-johnson-amendment-wouldnt-be-the-democrats-it-would-be-philanthropy
With this change, 501(c)(3) organizations could raise money for partisan political purposes. Under the disclosure current rules, the names of donors to these organizations would continue to be kept private. We already know the implication of this anonymity with the rise of 501(c)(4) “issue” organizations in the past decade – -commonly referred to as “dark money” groups.
Tim Delaney, president of the National Council on Nonprofits, explains the key issue well:
“Nonpartisanship is vital to the work of charitable nonprofits. It enables organizations to address community challenges, and invites the problem-solving skills of all residents, without the distractions of party labels and the caustic partisanship that is bedeviling our country. Indeed, current law is the reason that charitable nonprofits are safe havens from politics, a place where people can come together to actually solve community problems rather than just posture and remain torn apart.” https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/trends-policy-issues/protecting-nonprofit-nonpartisanship
I have great respect for the work of the charitable sector. At this time in our world, we need more resources to advance mission, not fewer. We need more focus and fewer unproductive distractions. We need more cooperation, not more division.
Help preserve the important separation between 501(c)(3)s and politics. As a starting point, add your support to this letter: https://www.givevoice.org/node/2