What the Tea Party Movement Can Teach Nonprofits

June 13, 2011; Source: Roll Call | Several top nonprofit leaders have been calling for the sector to exercise its latent political muscle, a few even suggesting that the restrictions on nonprofit sector partisan electioneering be dropped. The NPQ Newswire covers occasional developments with the Tea Party partly because it is a social or political movement with the flavor of what a more politically engaged nonprofit sector might look like.

Various elements of the Tea Party movement utilize 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) instruments – and in some cases adopt nonprofit sector language and fundraising approaches without showing much interest in the niceties of filing papers with the Internal Revenue Service.

Although a “mainstream” Republican presidential candidate like Mitt Romney, with poll numbers passing President Obama’s, seems to have eschewed Tea Party backing, most of the other putative Republican nominees are scrambling to appeal to this grassroots conservative movement. They fear that a Republican candidate “would not survive tea party hostility,” or that “the tea party is perhaps better suited to tear down candidates than to propel them to victory,” according to Roll Call.

Romney engenders the fiercest Tea Party enmity at the moment, directed by Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, because of his Obama-like Massachusetts health care reform program. The Tea Party Patriots also appear to despise poor Romney as well, showing nicer feelings toward Bachmann, Cain, Pawlenty, Santorum, and even Ron Paul. The debates within the movement pro or con about who (or anyone) to support against Obama lead Roll Call to a “fundamental truth about the tea party movement: There are various groups at the local, state and national levels that have little organization and often clashing priorities, even in the same region.”

What does the Tea Party movement presage for a nonprofit sector that might be unleashed to engage in partisan political electioneering? Advocates seem to talk about a nonprofit position or value, as though the nonprofit sector itself might coalesce around what it perceives as the 501(c) sector’s expectations, desires, and needs. Even with a recently shrunken nonprofit sector, the political and ideological diversity among nonprofits is huge. Just look at the range of comments on the NPQ Newswires to sense the vibrant debates around what nonprofits want and need from the nation’s political leadership. What would a partisan politicized nonprofit sector movement look like and do? Does the modern nonprofit sector actually fit the notion of “political movement?”—Rick Cohen