These adorable puppies need your help to keep the nonprofit sector nonpartisan

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[Image description: It’s an adorable little chihuahua puppy! It’s light brown with a cute wittle button nose and big dark eyes! This puppy thinks nonprofits should remain nonpartisan and focus on issues. All images on this post obtained from Pixabay.com]

Happy Monday, everyone. Today, I am asking you to take action to keep our sector nonpartisan. For the past few months, you’ve probably heard bits of information about the Johnson Amendment. And like me, you probably thought, “Argh, I don’t have time to pay attention to every horrible policy decision that’s coming down the line! I should probably read up on the Johnson Amendment, but I have enough to deal with. I’m going to binge-watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix. #selfcare.”

I can’t blame you. Kimmy’s hilarious, and it’s been exhausting trying to keep up with everything in the news. But, as boring as the Johnson Amendment is, it has served our community well for over 60 years, and now it is being threatened. Our sector and the people we serve could be seriously screwed if we don’t do something now. So I am asking you to learn about this issue and to sign this letter if you haven’t. Actually, these adorable puppies are asking you to learn about this issue and to sign the letter. Do you want to let these puppies down? I didn’t think so.

What the heck IS the Johnson Amendment?

Givevoice.org lays out everything you need to know, but I’ll try to simplify things down. OK, you

[Image description: It’s a little black puppy. Not really sure what sort of puppy it is, except ridiculously adorable! It’s standing in a field of green grass. And the puppy thinks it’s terrible that this rider may pass through Congress.]

know how nonprofits aren’t allowed to endorse political candidates? Well, that’s because of the Johnson Amendment. This Amendment, named after then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, prevents nonprofits from endorsing candidates or using funding to finance political campaigns. It’s kept us above the partisan fray so that we can all, no matter our political affiliations, work together to address injustice.

And now it’s being threatened. President Trump has said on numerous occasions that he wants to repeal the Johnson Amendment. Right now, there’s a rider to a spending bill that would make it much harder for the IRS to investigate religious institutions when they do engage in partisan politics in violation of the Johnson Amendment. You can learn more about why this rider is no good, very bad. But basically, if it passes, it would seriously weaken the Johnson Amendment, paving the way for its repeal, and causing our sector to be divisive and partisan.

What would happen if the Johnson Amendment were gone?

Imagine these horrifying scenarios if nonprofits were suddenly legally able to endorse political candidates (Thanks to colleagues at National Council of Nonprofits for coming up with most of these scenarios; I added a few)

  • Nonprofits being polarized into “Democratic nonprofits” and “Republican nonprofits.”

    [Image description: Two puppies in a brown wicker basket together! The puppies look to be maltese. They are both white and sooooo fluffy you could die! They think the scenarios of nonprofits being partisan are terrifying]

    Maybe a few “Libertarian nonprofits”?
  • Nonprofit staff getting hounded by political candidates and their operatives who hope to sway nonprofits to endorse them.
  • Boards of directors being torn apart over which candidates their nonprofit should endorse.
  • Foundations becoming partisan and pressuring nonprofits to align, potentially withholding funding from nonprofits that don’t
  • Donors trying to sway nonprofits to endorse their friends, family members, or colleagues who are running for office, using their donations as a subtle or not-so-subtle means of persuasion
  • Other donors becoming suspicious and leery of nonprofits, not sure if their donations are going to the mission, or for political purposes
  • Larger nonprofits getting more funding and influence as political candidates “buy” their

    [Image description: It’s a little super cute little puppy lying on the gravel. It’s face is brown and white, with floppy ears, and its tiny puppy body is black and white. It looks sad, probably thinking of how divisive nonprofits could be if the Johnson Amendment is gone.]

    brand in the form of endorsements.
  • Services for community members becoming crappier and crappier over time as partisanship taints our programs
  • Nonprofits now taking the political viewpoints of potential hires into consideration toensure there is a “cultural fit.”
  • Churches becoming a means to funnel political funds, since churches—unlike political organizations—don’t have to disclose who their donors are
  • The public’s trust in our sector vanishing as nonprofits end up becoming as divisive and partisan as the rest of society,

Who is opposed to nonprofits’ being partisan?

[Image description: It’s a happy pug puppy! Its tongue is sticking out from its cute wrinkled face! This puppy is happy because you’re signing this letter to support nonprofits nonpartisanship.]

Practically everyone in our sector! According to these articles compiled by Washington Nonprofits

 

 

OK, what should my organization and I do?

  • Sign this Community Letter in Support of Nonpartisanship. Do it this week. Before August 4th.

    [Image description: A fluffy white kitten in a brown wicker basket. The kitten is looking up with eyes imploring you to take action to protect the integrity of the nonprofit sector by keeping all nonprofits out of politics.]

  • Call your legislators and tell them to protect the Johnson Amendment and to ensure nonprofits remain nonpartisan
  • Talk about this issue on social media. Sample Tweet: #Nonprofits are effective because they focus on #CommunityNotCandidates. Maintain #JohnsonAmendment http://bit.ly/2nV6SQI 
  • And share this post. If not for the content, then at least because everyone could use more pictures of puppies in their lives

Thanks everyone. You’re awesome. These puppies think you’re amazing. And this kitten too.

(Seriously, please sign that letter).

Support the maintenance of this website by buying NWB (Now NAF) t-shirts and mugs and other stuff.

Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives. Subscribe to NAF by scrolling to the top right of this page (maybe scroll down a little) and enter in your email address (If you’re on the phone, it may be at the bottom). Also, join the NAF Facebook community for daily hilarity.

Also, join Nonprofit Happy Hour, a peer support group on Facebook, and if you are an ED/CEO, join ED Happy Hour. These are great forums for when you have a problem and want to get advice from colleagues, or you just want to share pictures of unicorns. Check them out.

Donate, or give a grant, to Vu’s organizationRainier Valley Corps, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and getting diverse communities to work together to address systemic issues.

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  • bettybarcode

    Duly tweeted, since only my boss can sign for my organization.

    Oh, and kittens demand equal time, plus the duckling is grumbling about tokenism.

  • Angie Sanders Wierzbicki

    Vu, thank you for this! I have been following this issue, and have shared the ongoing saga as well, but have lost track. I see August 4th as a deadline. Is that when the spending bill is being voted on?

    • Laura Pierce

      August 4 is the suggested deadline to sign on to the Community Letter on Nonprofit Nonpartisanship. Sign-ons by then will allow nonprofits to advocate using the letter over the August recess. The date of the vote is unclear, but it is currently expected to take place after the recess.

  • Larry Kaplan

    I absolutely disagree. The nonprofit sector is pulling its punches here. And everyone has jumped on board in yet another example of groupthink.

    First, I oppose the bill as currently written because it would only allow religious nonprofits (churches) to get involved in electioneering (partisan politics), not secular nonprofits.

    I believe that ALL nonprofits should have the right to support and oppose candidates for public office. Keep in mind that if the Johnson Amendment was repealed completely, the ACLU and Planned Parenthood — with all their supporters and the political power of their constituencies — would have the ability to engage in electing a president as would the Christian Coalition (give credit where it’s due — they did a very effective job developing clout).

    If you believe that advocacy is important, indeed critical, to effecting systemic change, than let’s go all the way. It’s not enough to support or oppose public policy — we must support or oppose those elected officials who make that policy. All the negative bullets you cite in your post are precisely what should happen in the political process of effecting change in civil society.

    Look at the current situation — all the nonprofits appalled, as am I, at Trumpism and the policies of his Republican allies in Congress, are doing their damnedest to prevent the retrogressive policies they espouse. And at the end of every conversation about how hard we must work to promote progressive change and stop Trump’s onslaught, there is always someone wistfully saying something to the effect of “now all we need is for the Democrats to re-take Congress.”

    Why leave it to others to finish the job? We have every right, as does corporate America and big labor under current law, to exercise our right to support or oppose candidates for public office. Why only go so far? Let’s take responsibility for, and embrace, the end-game of this entire dynamic and work for progressive candidates as well as for progressive policies. The ability to electioneer is just another important tool in the advocacy toolbox.

    Yes, change is messy and difficult. The politics of change is messy and difficult, too. But you cannot have change based only on good intentions — it takes organizing and strong messaging, and a key component of that process is the elevation of like-minded individuals to positions of power and influence in our society and government.

    So lets put on our hip boots and jump in.

    • Gloria Bruce

      I think part of the problem with this debate is that the original post oversimplifies a bit in referring to “nonprofits” as opposed to “501(c)3 nonprofits.” And I totally get why Vu is doing that, but your response, Larry, highlights the confusion that this might cause. The Johnson Amendment applies to 501c3 nonprofits.
      However, nonprofits with a different tax status – 501(c)4 – absolutely can and do endorse candidates and engage in political activity, as long as such “political activity” is not their *primary* purpose. In fact, Larry, your response cites the ACLU and Planned Parenthood – two organizations that- like most big national orgs with an advocacy mission – absolutely have established 501(c)4 arms so that they can lobby much more freely. While there are several hurdles to becoming a c(4), many organizations do it, both large and small. So there is already an avenue for the type of action you’re talking about, Larry, without the repeal of the Johnson Amendment. This is a very tricky issue and I’m a bit worried that many nonprofit leaders (myself included) don’t understand the legal ramifications enough to weigh in.

      • nonprofitcommenter

        This is very true, but I find it irksome that large nonprofits with substantial organizational resources are the ones able to go through the motions of setting up a c4 and engage in political activities. Often they have both organizations in the same building and staff members dividing time between the c3 and c4, which creates a substantial record-keeping burden, and many of us doubt those records are accurate in any event. For a small community-based nonprofit, it is often not feasible to go through all of these steps, and thus their voice is limited.
        I also support donor disclosure for c3s and c4s, but that is another issue entirely.

        • Gloria Bruce

          Completely agree with that! People have occasionally suggested that my nonprofit start a c(4) and I’m like, are you kidding?

        • Patrick Taylor

          I’ve had experience working at a c3 with an affiliated c4, and the record keeping of who is spending how much time on C4 activity was very accurate. The Sierra Clubs and Planned Parenthoods don’t play fast and loose with those rules. I spoke to several affiliated c4s about how they conducted themselves, and was struck by how conservative and careful they were in their practices. One organization used their c4 to do a lot of c3 work, just so that they could argue that they weren’t using it “only” to lobby. But it takes time and expensive legal consultation to get it right.

          • nonprofitcommenter

            That’s good to know and thanks. I will say from my experience everyone plays fast and loose with what constitutes grassroots and direct lobbying activities. And it still bugs me that this option is effectively available to only the largest, best funded organizations.

    • nonprofitcommenter

      Thank you for this, and I completely agree. I only have reservations about donating to candidates (which should be subject to disclosure) and I don’t see anything about the limits on grassroots/direct lobbying, which should be completely eliminated.

    • nonprofitworker

      Agreed with the other comments here, but there’s a real lack of understanding between advocacy and politcal/electoral politics and where the line is for 501(c)3s can participate. (c)3s can advocate for policies and legislation as they pertain to their mission, but they cannot endorse candidates or fundraise for them. That’s what’s at stake, and if the sector loses that line, there’s too much risk for how donations are spent, the loss of trust with donors, in-fighting on boards and an overall lack of focus on the mission because folks are too focused on politics.

    • Larry Kaplan

      Nonprofitcommenter — yes, campaign finance and disclosuere laws, which need to be strengthened anyway, must apply in all cases. And I would lift all lobbying limits, as well.

      nonprofitworker — that’s my point: allowing C3’s to advocate for policies and legislation but not for or against the elected officials and candidates who either create, promote, end or oppose those policies and legislation is like fighting with one hand behind your back. The regressive right doesn’t hesitate to use every tool available to advance its agenda — we cannot defeat them without using those very same tools without hesitation. Politics — and you cannot divorce policy debates from electioneering — ain’t beanbags and it’s time for the nonprofit sector to go balls out.

      Your concern over the trust of donors, loss of focus and board infighting is valid, but a well-managed C3 that takes the time to do it right can overcome those issues. You can develop transparent consensus-driven priority-setting policies to guide your political engagement, in the same way you are (hopefully) developing those policies to guide your issues advocacy and program work. The nonprofits that will screw up electioneering are probably the same ones who screw up other advocacy and program work because of a failure to be strategic, inclusive and deliberate.

      Gloria — you are right, C3’s can form C4’s, and that’s one way around the Johnson Amendment. But small local C3’s — which should be actively engaged with local electoral politics (as many of those who get funding through the states and local governments know, it ain’t just about Congress and the president) — may not have the resources to form separate C4’s.

      Why not just make it easier to engage in change politics?

    • Patrick Taylor

      I think the Christian Coalition is a good example of what the nonprofit sector has to lose by aligning itself to strongly with a political party. For the most part the organization echoes republican party talking points, whether or not those align at all with “Christian” values. Their legislative agenda includes repealing ObamaCare and protecting second amendment rights, two things that matter a lot to the Rs, but are not really “christian” issues.

  • Jaime Carrillo

    Vu, unfortunately non-profits are political and Have been operating in this way. all of the risks you mentioned are things that happen egregiously. Many non-profits receive money to “encourage voting” without influence of party, but issue areas Are politics, and those phonecalls (which pay staff, but employ volunteers for actual calling) serve to underwrite politically driven issues and relationships. After all, people talking. I agree we should keep politics out of non-profits. But we can’t do it now With a regulation, why bother?

  • nonprofitcommenter

    I too feel the sector is inherently political and see no real problem with endorsing candidates for office. However, I am in favor of a ban on donations to candidates unless donor disclosure is mandatory (perhaps over a certain dollar amount, indexed to inflation), which should be true for both c3s and c4s.
    I don’t see anything in this regarding removing the direct/grassroots lobbying regulations with the IRS; that would be my top priority.
    The pernicious desire to remain “nonpartisan” and non-confrontational has led to at least as much injustice as the lack of general operating support from foundations. It is something I have never understood.

  • Patrick Taylor

    “Churches becoming a means to funnel political funds, since churches—unlike political organizations—don’t have to disclose who their donors are”

    This is the crux of it, and why conservatives want to repeal the Johnson amendment. They want to use churches to funnel money into elections. They want to use evangelical churches as de facto political organizing centers. This is also why they are attacking the IRS – they want C4s to continue to be used as funnels for political donations.

    Over $4 billion was spent in the 2016 election, mostly on television ads that reduce complex issues into misleading soundbytes. More money in elections has not made them fairer or more democratic. If anything it’s been the opposite. I don’t think people should get a tax break for trying to buy a politician. If anything we should make funding elections even more restrictive.

    • Eric Burgess

      Patrick, I’m a conservative, born-again Christian, and weekly church attendee — and I myself DON’T want the Johnson Amendment to go!

  • JohnnyRiv86

    Speaking for me and not my nonprofit here — the nonprofit sector is, I believe, the third largest sector in our country. We employ millions. We account for hundreds of millions in revenue. We impact our local communities with the work we do, the people we employ, the money we spend in our local economies. And we are largely ignored because we aren’t “job producers” or “economic drivers” by the business community. I say hogwash. We have a voice and collectively we can have a much larger impact. We must not continue to be seen as the nice little “do-gooders” but rather a power coalition with major influence. Our voice is important, our issues critical. We not need sit by idly while elections happen that have major impact on what we do and who we serve. Repeal Johnson Amendment? Maybe not — but lets fix it. And as my friend Robert Egger wrote 14 years ago, lets stop being happy begging for change.

  • Colin Jones

    I feel like the list of potential downsides is pretty unrealistic. Currently, all 501c3 organizations can lobby, but while there’s some broad encouragement to engage more in political process, I don’t think we’re constantly hounded/pressured by politicians, activists, donors, or foundations to take positions on legislation. On the other hand, small businesses have nearly unlimited freedom to endorse candidates.. yet very few choose to do so. These two facts I think paint a more accurate picture of what is likely to happen if the Johnson Amendment is repealed: Some nonprofits will engage in electoral politics (likely, the ones that are already politically minded), most will not (and the thoughtful ones among those will develop a policy explicitly saying they will not).

    It’d be great, instead, to consider one of the big benefits of repealing the Johnson Amendment: it has the potential to dramatically reduce the climate of fear that pervades the sector. We are, collectively, terrified of politics in large part because the rules that govern what we can and cannot do are byzantine and the consequences are perceived as severe. By repealing the Johnson Amendment, we remove a lot of those cumbersome regulations creating a greater feeling of safety to engage in things that are already allowed like voter registration, get out the vote work, and criticism of sitting elected officials.

    It’s also worth noting what repealing the Johnson Amendment *wouldn’t* do — it wouldn’t allow nonprofits to contribute to federal candidate campaigns directly (or any state/local campaigns where state law prohibits). That’s already prohibited for all corporations under totally different laws. Also, depending on how they repeal it, limits on lobbying may be unchanged as well.

    • Melissa C.

      It’s my understanding that the real reason behind this repeal would be so that candidates can be endorsed from the pulpit.

      • Rhiannon Orizaga

        It’s not as if that isn’t already happening; there is no way for the IRS to check every house of worship to make sure they don’t endorse candidates. I have been to churches that say it differently, from “pray for our leaders,” to “let’s pray this particular one wins the election,” and everything in between. Most Christian churches have already aligned themselves as “left” or “right” in their theology, which informs their politics.

        • Melissa C.

          Yes, though removing any obstacles to it serves as a tacit endorsement of it, and will leave them dancing in the aisles that their shackles have been cut. It’s like the bigots who are coming out of the woodwork justifying their hateful actions by saying “This is why we have Trump.” And politicians will take full advantage of it (which is what’s behind it).

      • Colin Jones

        Melissa, I totally think that’s the motivation. But. So what? The prohibition on churches endorsing candidates is entirely unenforced. Instead, the rules make non-religious organizations terrified that they’re gonna lose their c3 status if they engage in elections at all… so they sit by the side while their clients are hurt by candidates and policies that could’ve been prevented. Even the “churches will funnel money secretly” doesn’t hold a lot of water because you can already do that through a c4 organization, which also doesn’t have to disclose its donors.

  • Eric Burgess

    I’m a conservative, born-again Christian, and weekly church attendee, and I myself DON’T want the Johnson Amendment to go.

    You have my vote!

  • I have no problem with (c)3 and the Johnson Amendment. What I do have a problem with is the IRS being partisan and targeting the (c)4s! The federal government has earned our distrust repeatedly. Since Congress and the last two administrations have done nothing, the only way to eliminate corruption is to remove legislation and restrictions. Giving more liberty to all 501(c) organizations will reduce the opportunity for corruption in the IRS and federal government. I would rather be shocked and disappointed in 501(c)’s than live under the tyranny of the IRS.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IRS_targeting_controversy

  • Hannah

    Thank you so much for this, Vu! This is absolutely crucial to the nonprofit sector.

  • Joan Bowman

    Thank you for writing about this important issue! As a public policy staffer for Michigan Nonprofit Association, I join many leaders opposing efforts to eliminate or weaken the Johnson Amendment that prohibits 501(c)(3) charitable organizations from endorsing, opposing or contributing to political candidates and engaging in partisan campaign activities. Charities should remain above the political fray, advocating and informing on ISSUES, not endorsing candidates.

  • Laura Pierce

    Thanks for spreading the word, Vu. I think it is important for us to defend the Johnson Amendment and keep 501(c)(3)s nonpartisan.
    Very interesting to see the comments on this. I’ll add that in addition to forming a 501(c)(4), Political Action Committees (PACs) can be formed for political groups that want to endorse candidates. There are sound reasons for having different rules governing the different activities. 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofits are only one type of tax-exempt organization, and the public trust in charitable nonprofits is advanced by the current rules against electioneering.

  • Linda Czipo

    Thanks, Vu, for this piece. I couldn’t agree with you more.

    I urge anyone who hasn’t taken a moment to do so to please read Section 116,
    the appropriations rider that’s moving in the House and currently has the most
    traction.

    Section 116 doesn’t repeal the Johnson Amendment. It doesn’t remove the ban
    on electioneering by 501(c)(3)s. It very specifically prevents the use of funds by the IRS to investigate violations – no matter how severe – by religious organizations, by imposing a series of procedural conditions that are virtually impossible to meet. Meanwhile, it does nothing to impede investigation of violations by secular organizations. It’s intended to allow a tiny fraction of religious organizations to engage in partisan electioneering, disregarding the fact that a huge number of denominations and religious orgs/leaders across ideologies do NOT want this. It’s hugely unpopular and likely unconstitutional.

    There are plenty of existing structures – (c)(4)s, PACs, etc. – as well as individual engagement, individual candidacies, for people to be active in partisan politics, and we need more involvement by good people at those levels as well. But that’s not the same as encouraging partisanship within a 501(c)(3) environment, which I am convinced would open up a huge Pandora’s box, exacerbate divisiveness, make it much harder to build bridges for problem-solving.

    Finally, most 501(c)(3)s don’t come close to the level of advocacy, lobbying and nonpartisan voter engagement that current law already permits. MANY more orgs need to systematize these activities on a regular, strategic, sophisticated and forceful basis. Contrary to what some have suggested, “nonpartisan” ≠ “spineless,” as countless very effective (c)(3) advocates can attest. If more organizations aren’t raising their voices, it’s because there’s so much confusion and misinformation about what existing law actually allows, and because not all make the connection between advocacy and other aspects of mission.

    Let’s start with building a culture within our organizations, and among funders, that values and invests in advocacy and civic engagement by (c)(3)s as highly as fundraising and direct service, and let’s leave the Johnson Amendment alone.

    (P.S. This is not spam. My first two attempts to post were flagged.)

  • David Heinen

    From my experience working in the nonprofit sector for most of the past two decades, Vu’s “horrifying scenarios” certainly ring true. Even with minimal IRS capacity for enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, the requirement that 501(c)(3) organizations stay out of partisan politics is an underlying part of why the public trusts the work of 501(c)(3) nonprofits. It also gives nonprofits a great excuse to
    stay out of the race to win influence on policy by making the most campaign contributions. Today, 501(c)(3) nonprofits typically influence policy decisions by sharing stories and data about the work they do. If politicians began to expect nonprofits to make campaign contributions to gain influence on policy issues, the reality is very few of us would have the financial resources to compete with business
    interests, and our influence on public policy would likely be diluted.

    Furthermore,repealing the Johnson Amendment is unnecessary to achieve the goal of free speech for nonprofits, churches, and the individuals who lead these organizations. Many nonprofit leaders already give their personal time and money to political campaigns. Here in North Carolina, many of our elected officials work for, or serve on the boards of, 501(c)(3) nonprofits. This type of political activity and political
    speech by individuals associated with nonprofits is already allowed under the Johnson Amendment.

    Much of the push for repealing or amending the Johnson Amendment seems to be coming from those who mistakenly confuse engaging in partisan politics with speaking out on policy issues. Nonprofits can already take positions on policy issues – even contentious ones. We don’t need to change the existing law to be able to speak out on policy issues that are core to our missions.

  • Jane Van Ingen

    I know I’m late to this discussion but I was on vacation. Thank you so much for bringing much-needed attention to this matter. I have signed the letter and have used this controversy as an opportunity to open the door to greater financial transparency where I work.