501(c)(3) Electioneering Rules: Employee Endorsements & Election Activities

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As we’ve previously written in the first post of this series, 501(c)(3) organizations are prohibited from engaging in or sponsoring activities that intervene in a political campaign for public office.  However, this does not mean that all individuals associated with such organizations, including employees, volunteers, officers, and directors, are similarly prohibited from engaging in electioneering activities.  Individuals do not give up their First Amendment rights simply by associating with a 501(c)(3) organization, and organizations should be careful to avoid placing unnecessary (or impermissible) restrictions on such individuals’ activities.

Rather, a 501(c)(3) organization should adopt carefully-thought-out written policies regarding the use of the organization’s name, its resources, and staff time in connection with individuals’ personal activities.   First and foremost, a 501(c)(3) organization should put into place practices to ensure that none of its assets or facilities are used in connection with an individual’s electioneering activities.  This includes not only the organization’s funds, but also its telephones, computers, email accounts, letterhead, mailing lists, and copy machines, as well as other resources.  The organization should also generally ensure that any compensated staff member does not use time on the job for such activities and should avoid using organizational events or other platforms for announcing individuals’ electioneering activities.

A 501(c)(3) organization may also wish to use disclaimers itself and to encourage associated individuals to do so, as well.  For example, when engaging in permissible nonpartisan election-related activities, the organization should consider including written disclaimers in any materials and oral disclaimers at any event stating that the organization itself cannot and does not endorse or oppose candidates for elective office.  Individuals associated with 501(c)(3) organizations should be requested to include disclaimers making clear that statements they make in their individual capacities in support of or in opposition to candidates for elective office are their own and do not reflect statements made on behalf of the organization.  And if the individual’s affiliation with the organization is included as part of any electioneering statement by that individual, it should be made clear that it is for identification purposes only and is not intended to reflect action on behalf of the organization.

Keep in mind that a 501(c)(3) organization cannot do something indirectly through its employees or volunteers that it could not do directly itself.  It also may not send internal messages or communications to its employees or volunteers, such as alerts as to which candidates are best aligned with the organization’s mission and should therefore be voted for, that it could not send more broadly.

For more information, see Alliance for Justice’s advocacy resource, Rules of the Game: A Guide to Election-Related Activities for 501(c)(3) Organizations.