(WASHINGTON, August 15, 2013) — Independent Sector is deeply troubled by a proposal, included in a report from the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations, to lift the ban on political activity by 501(c)(3) organizations including religious organizations. We urge all policymakers to reject any proposal that will ultimately undermine the public trust in these charitable organizations and do more harm than good.
Federal rules prohibiting political activity by tax-exempt charitable organizations, including religious organizations, are essential to maintaining public confidence in, and support for, the charitable community. Just as importantly, current IRS provisions preclude taxpayers from being able to deduct donations to organizations engaged in partisan political activity. Allowing the endorsement of political candidates, as this report calls for, is tantamount to allowing political agents to use the public’s goodwill towards the charitable sector as a vehicle to advance, through financial contributions, their own partisan political will. Such action would drag the charitable sector into the morass of political activity, driving a nail into the coffin of its integrity and credibility.
Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code permits charities actively to interact with public officials on a limited basis while strictly prohibiting them to engage in political activity. This is an appropriate distinction, as countless charities work every day to educate public officials on issues relevant to their mission and important to their clients, members, or communities. Indeed, IS believes that speaking out and engaging in advocacy on issues is critical to the ability of nonprofits to achieve their charitable missions. This is an entirely different matter than endorsing candidates or getting involved in political campaigns.
The lack of clarity in the rules governing permitted political activity by 501(c)(4) organizations is troubling, and clearing up those rules must be a priority for our sector. There is a compelling public interest in ensuring the American people know the identities of those who finance political activities aimed at deciding the outcome of elections. IS has already spoken out in favor of requiring 501(c)(4) organizations engaged in political activity to disclose publicly their donors if their funds are being used for political activity. What we need are clearer boundaries, not for the existing ones to be torn down.
501(c)(3) organizations, as the public trust demands, should remain above the political fray, advocating and informing leaders, but never engaging in political activity.
Independent Sector is a leadership network of approximately 600 nonprofits, foundations, and corporate giving programs committed to advancing the common good. Our nonpartisan coalition leads, strengthens, and mobilizes the sector; we advocate for public policies that fortify our communities; and we create unparalleled resources so staff, boards, and volunteers can further their missions and increase their impact. Learn more at www.independentsector.org.