With midterm elections looming on the horizon, many foundations are asking the question: What can we do to get out the vote, educate the voting public, and support our grantees’ important election season advocacy work? The good news is that even during an election year, the tax code provides both public and private foundations with wide latitude to engage in advocacy. Although 501(c)(3) organizations of all types are prohibited from supporting or opposing candidates for public office, they can engage in nonpartisan efforts to educate candidates and voters about issues critical to their missions, and they can provide financial support to organizations working one-on-one with local communities to guarantee that every eligible voter has a voice in the government that serves them.
Here are 10 actions that your foundation and its staff can take now to boost public participation in elections and ensure a representative and responsive democracy:
- Host a candidate debate or forum to educate voters about those who are running for office in their local communities. To ensure that your candidate debate is conducted in a nonpartisan way, you’ll want to invite all viable candidates to participate, find an impartial moderator, publicize the event widely to ensure a diverse audience, cover a broad range of issues, and provide equal opportunity for candidates to respond to unbiased, open-ended questions.
- Compile and distribute nonpartisan candidate questionnaires to inform voters about where the candidates stand on a broad range of issues. Candidate questionnaires should avoid bias toward the views of the candidates polled. This can be achieved by asking open-ended questions (for instance, “what is your position on X” rather than a yes or no question) that do not suggest a preferred response. In addition, all viable candidates should be asked to participate. Foundations should avoid comparing candidate responses to the foundation’s position on any issue.
- Provide general operating support to public charity grantees so that they have the discretion and ability to utilize foundation funds for nonpartisan election season advocacy, including get-out-the-vote activities. By choosing not to earmark a grant for any particular purpose, foundations can demonstrate trust in their grantees and provide them with the flexibility to interact with voters and candidates in a nonpartisan way.
- Make specific project grant awards to the foundation’s grantees to support their nonpartisan voter and candidate education work. While the tax code prohibits private foundations from earmarking grants for ballot measure campaigns and limits their ability to fund voter registration drives (see below), both public and private foundations are otherwise free to earmark grants for several types of nonpartisan election-related activities.
- Fund a voter registration campaign. The tax code allows public foundations to earmark grants for nonpartisan voter registration drives. More restrictive rules apply to private foundations; however, these types of funders may earmark grants for voter registration provided that certain requirements are met.
- Provide critical funding for your grantees to support or oppose ballot measures (including bond initiatives, constitutional amendments, and other measures up for vote by the public on the ballot). While the tax code considers ballot measure advocacy to be a lobbying activity, public foundations can engage in lobbying themselves or earmark grants for this type of advocacy. Private foundations, on the other hand, should not earmark grants for lobbying (including ballot measure advocacy), but they can provide their grantees with general operating support or fund the non-lobbying portion of a specific project grant request.
- Engage in nonpartisan candidate education to inform those running for office about the issues important to your foundation’s mission. Candidate education materials should be offered to all candidates in a race, and foundations should make every effort to ensure that candidates are provided with the same information. Just remember that private foundations should refrain from lobbying in their candidate communications to avoid a taxable expenditure.
- Remember that public and private foundation staff are free to participate in partisan election activities on their own time (and using their own resources). For tips on how to ensure that your personal support or opposition of candidates does not jeopardize your foundation’s tax-exempt status, see Bolder Advocacy’s “Election Activities of Individuals Associated with Foundations”
- Prepare for the potential of a contested election. Should one occur, both public and private foundations can advocate for all ballots to be counted and for the proper administration of post-election procedures so long as they do not support or oppose a candidate for public office in the process.
- Contact our Bolder Advocacy team if you have any questions related to your foundation’s ability to engage in election season advocacy. Our advocacy coaches are ready and eager to help you confidently get out that vote.
Natalie Roetzel Ossenfort is the Interim Program Director for Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy program. Find her on Twitter and on LinkedIn.