The Nonprofit Case of America-First Priorities

March 13, 2017; Politico

Here’s another story to fuel our ongoing discussion of whether we need to separate the worlds of nonprofit “social welfare” and political organizations.

On the same day Donald Trump took the oath of office and became our nation’s 45th President, he filed as a candidate for reelection in 2020. Just days later, a newly formed 501(c)(4) organization, America First Policies (AFP), was announced by its founders, six former high-level Trump campaign staffers. In fact, the nonprofit had been in the planning stages during the transition, complete with an internal power struggle discussed in an NPQ report. One AFP’s organizers, Brad Parscale, who had been a deputy campaign manager, told U.S. News and World Report, “Some of the same like-minded individuals who put their energy into getting Mr. Trump elected are now going to be part of a grassroots group to go out there and help with the agenda, help the White House be successful.” Apparently, because of the ability to accept donations of unlimited size and keep their donors anonymous, the founders chose to structure their group as a nonprofit social welfare organization rather than as a PAC.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Kellyanne Conway, currently holding the title “counselor to the president,” described an even more expansive agenda for AFP: “We’re fighting and planning how to continue this seismic change and the Trump revolution into the next election.” One of the strategies then under consideration went even further, generating opposition to 10 Democratic senators who were deemed most vulnerable when seeking reelection in 2018.

Since its formation two months ago, AFP has struggled to get going. Little if any research has been conducted, nor have any materials been published. According to Politico:

Officials involved in America First Policies acknowledged their slow start. They say it’s the natural result in part of having to wait for the White House to staff up before they could make hires. “It was a little like waiting for the music to stop in musical chairs,” said one official. “We’ve now gotten to the point where everything is lined up and money is being raised.”

Because the group’s definition of their social welfare purpose is intricately connected to President Trump’s policy and political agendas, AFP’s progress has become not just an issue for their board to debate. Criticism, according to an unidentified member of Politico, is coming directly from the White House. Others, frustrated with the lack of progress, have even begun looking at forming another social welfare organization, potentially resulting in multiple competing pro-Trump 501(c)(4)s run by Trump campaign insiders.

What are the benchmarks that would make it easy to understand the nature of an organization as a social welfare and not political entity? Would it need to define its objectives only in terms of issues and not in terms of individual officeholders, candidates, or parties? Would it need to use its resources only to conduct research and provide educational materials and experiences, rather than produce TV and social media ads? Would its staff be drawn from the worlds of academia and social service rather than politics? Is this a distinction that can be made when it has already proven so difficult for the IRS to define political activity in the context of 501(c)(4) regulation? And if not, should 501(c)(4) organizations deserve the right to raise and spend unlimited sums raised from anonymous sources?—Martin Levine