June 20, 2018; North Cook News
Nonprofits, especially those that receive public funding, are in a precarious position during election cycles. They need to know the do’s and don’ts of what is allowed in dealing with elections, candidates running for office (any office), and issues that may be at play in an election. At the same time, there is the question of whether knowing what is “proper” is totally the responsibility of the nonprofit, or if some of the burden falls on the candidates themselves,
A youth-serving agency in a suburb of Chicago is feeling the pain of not being on top of this. Their trouble may serve others as a great example of how nonprofits can potentially pay a great price if they are not vigilant about anything that could be perceived as electioneering.
Youth Services of Glenview/Northbrook hosted the “North Suburban Pride Picnic” on June 10th at their headquarters in Glenview, Illinois. Volunteers from Democrats of Northfield Township helped them with the event and then posted pictures of it on their Facebook page. These photos were later reposted with a “Thank you for having us this afternoon to celebrate #pridemonth” message on the page of the Democratic candidate for State Senate in the area district. Photos also included a teen handing out buttons that clearly said “Vote Dem.”
This set off a storm from Republicans in the area.
T.J. Brown, Northfield Township Republican committeeman, told North Cook News that no Republicans were invited to the event, and nonprofit experts said that even the appearance of partisanship could get the group, organized as a 501c3, in trouble with the IRS. The group received $700,000 in government grants from 2014–2016.
“Nonprofits can endorse issues but are not permitted to endorse or oppose candidates,” Rick Cohen, chief operating officer of the National Council of Nonprofits, says. “This sounds like they are deep into the gray area right up against the line of violating the law.”
Did Youth Services of Glenview/Northfield invite Democrats and not Republicans? Their executive director says no. “Our Pride Picnic was an open, public event free to the community and we welcome everyone in our building,” Amy O’Leary wrote in an email to the North Cook News. “Invitations were not sent out and volunteer groups and attendees signed up through event publicity.”
The issue, then, seems to be whether when the Democrats volunteered the nonprofit should have responded with caution or perhaps a “thanks, but no thanks.” If politicians show up who have been friends of the organization, and whom the nonprofit may rely on to help get public funds, how does the nonprofit balance maintaining relationships with preserving their nonprofit status? And shouldn’t those politicians know better?
Well, given the way our elections and how our politicians operate, the burden will almost always fall to the nonprofit. So, what’s a nonprofit to do? There are many resources that outline clearly the boundaries of 501c3s. One of the most up-to-date, now with resources in Spanish, is the Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy site. Nonprofits can ask specific questions on the site and get quick answers, so you won’t have to keep that politician waiting for your yes or no! Knowledge is always your best resource. Knowing the ins and outs of what you can do in terms of elections, candidates, and issues is vital for nonprofit credibility. And nothing is more important in the nonprofit world than maintaining your credibility, especially during elections.—Carole Levine