Nonprofit Newswire | Gov. Christie Needs to Change the State Supreme Court: And Keep Heat on NJEA

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March 28, 2010; Asbury Park Press | This is the vulnerability of nonprofits that everyone has to be aware of. Newly elected governor Chris Christie is fighting with the New Jersey Education Association over teachers’ salaries and benefits. No surprise there.

But an op-ed columnist in the Asbury Park Press weighed in with an unusual and inaccurate take on the NJEA’s tax status: “The NJEA is recognized as a nonprofit outfit that is supposed to use its money to serve its members and is not taxed, as if it were a church or a charity. There is no doubt that the NJEA engages in political activity, so maybe someone should take a close look at the NJEA’s tax-exempt status.”

No, the NJEA isn’t a charity. It’s a tax exempt labor union (501(c)(5)), not a public charity, and is expected to advocate for the interests of its members. But the implicit argument is that public charities are not supposed to engage in political activities.

Wrong. Charities cannot engage in partisan political electioneering, but they can certainly advocate and lobby about public policies. Whenever a newspaper issues broad-brush statements about nonprofits and politics that are clearly wrong, nonprofits ought to take the opportunity to educate about the different kinds of tax exempt organizations permitted under the tax code and the specific advocacy and lobbying rights of 501(c)(3) public charities.—Rick Cohen

  • Lindsay

    [“Charities cannot engage in partisan political electioneering, but they can certainly advocate and lobby about public policies”] as long as it does not make up a substantial part of the organization’s activities (in most cases)… but the IRS hasn’t defined the phrase “substantial part”, so that really doesn’t restrict organizations much. So, yes we can lobby, just be careful how much.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Lindsay: Thanks for the “substantial part” commentary. My experience is that most nonprofits that should be doing lobbying are hardly doing any at all, certainly not enough for them to have to search for the IRS’s nonexistent definitions of the term. Our suggestion is that NPQ readers concerned about their ability to lobby should turn to the Alliance for Justice (http://www.afj.org), the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest (http://www.clpi.org/), and the National Council of Nonprofits (http://www.councilofnonprofits.org/) for advice and legal interpretations.