Charities and Politics

Charities are, by definition, about a cause and causes are something worth speaking out or fighting for. Unfortunately, when it comes to the most important speech an individual or organization fighting for a cause can make it is also something you need to be very careful with.

501c3 charities are barred from being directly involved in political campaigns. In defining what it means to be involved in a political campaign the IRS has taken about the most expanded view of the word involved that could be imagined. In fact, under current IRS guidance, even a voter education campaign that favors one politician over another could be a violation. This creates a difficult situation for an individual working to educate the public about an issue that is either supported or opposed by specific candidates or political parties.

Take for instance, a charity whose purpose is to educate the public about guns. Whether the charity is attempting to educate the public about guns and gun safety or the need for gun control, those are highly political questions. Under IRS guidance, there are very specific approaches to providing that education without crossing the line into political campaigning.

The reason for such a hard stance is that the law does not allow for tax exempt 501c3 organizations to act as political propaganda machines. This makes sense but also seems to infringe upon the free speech rights of legitimate cause-based charities. Given that many charities are organized as separate corporate persons of some type this question is particularly interesting under Citizens United but that is another article.

So what do you do if you are a pro-gun, pro-life, access to justice, or other such group and you want to educate your constituents about related political issues? The most common answer is don’t and the reason for that answer is that the closer you get to the boundary line between education and political campaigning the greater the likelihood you will have to defend your actions to the IRS. That said, there are various approaches to educating the public on political issues that can be used by charities without running afoul of the law but they are limited.

The key thing to know is that if you feel passionate enough about your issue to work closely to this legal boundary, you really need to work with an attorney to assist you in navigating precisely what is and is not legal. That attorney should be able to assist you in effectively fighting for the issue that is so important to you within the rule of law.