October 26, 2017; Idaho Statesman
As the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his 1831 visit, US citizens have a remarkable capacity to come together to solve problems. Indeed, addressing community issues in the form of private, voluntary associations has been the hallmark of nonprofit advocacy.
Nonprofits need not shy away from this important service, using their expertise to weigh in on public policy matters for the betterment of the common good. So, it is in this spirit that the Treasure Valley YMCA of Idaho mobilized its members for a bond issue last November in pursuit of gaining support to pay for new community amenities, like a swimming pool and a library. This is legal, mission-related activity, also known as issue advocacy. To weigh in on issues related to the communities you serve is legally permissible activity for nonprofits and can, and should be, done.
However, once a list of those supporting members started to circulate among politicos, things got messy for the Y. After Jeff Sayer, a candidate for the Idaho Senate, used the list, which is against both YMCA policy and the law, they had to post their mailing list policy, where they emphasize that they do not endorse candidates, to their homepage and to Twitter.
When news of the breach started making the rounds on Twitter on Thursday, the YMCA posted to Twitter: “YMCA does not endorse political candidates. Unauthorized use of YMCA contact info occurred and it has been stopped.”
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Candidates need to take ownership for using such lists irresponsibly, and candidate Jeff Sayer has issued an apology in this case. “I am fully ready to take responsibility for this,” he said. “Even though the YMCA list was already out there from the bond election, we did not stop and ask if we could use it for an individual election. That was the heart of the mistake that we made.”
YMCA members complained about being contacted for political purposes, and it could potentially put the Y’s tax exemption status in question. The biggest loss in these instances can be the chilling effect it has on organizations’ ability to do the important work of shaping policy in their communities. For this reason, every entity from the National Council of Nonprofits to the National Association of State Charity Officials has firmly advocated not weakening the Johnson Amendment by Congress that protects charitable organizations from being manipulated for political purposes.
Sayer said that he has deleted the entire list of 19,000 to be sure that all of the YMCA names are removed, and he will start list building afresh.
“I will say this a thousand times before I am done,” he said, “but I am so sorry for putting the YMCA in this difficult spot and for the intrusion on their members.” NPQ commends the Treasure Valley YMCA for calling the issue out and the candidate for quickly and publicly acknowledging his misstep.
Now, go out there, nonprofits, and keep fighting for the resources your community needs. And a final note as we near November elections in many localities: nonprofits can do nonpartisan voter registration, voter education and get-out-the-vote activities. See Nonprofit VOTE for resources and training on this important activity. And remember, as de Tocqueville observed, “The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.”—Jeannie Fox