Amidst the chaos of the past couple weeks there has been at least one positive change—a lot more people are starting to stand up and speak out about issues that concern them. I have personally had people seek out my advice for their first-ever calls to legislators and spoken to many first-time protesters. Many, many, more individuals have dramatically stepped up their commitments (myself included) to call, show up, resist, intervene, and generally be a visible presence for justice in the world.
Since the atmosphere has been very all-hands-on-deck, and since I work for a nonprofit publication read by nonprofits, I’ve been thinking about how the nonprofit sector needs to make a similar shift. A lot of us are involved with nonprofits (which includes religious congregations)—whether as staff, board members, volunteers, donors, or congregants. The nonprofit is a massive sector in our economy, and a fairly respected one overall.
And yet, many nonprofits try to stay “neutral” politically. We know there are some political restrictions (which are really very narrow) on tax-exempt charities (called 501(c)3s), but most of us don’t know exactly what they are. Staff and boards tend to err on the side of caution, of not rocking the boat, and of not risking their funding. And when they do speak up, it’s often very carefully limited to their wheelhouse—advocating to keep the programs that fund them alive and funded, or for rule changes that let them do our jobs better.
I would like to suggest that the nonprofit sector can’t afford to keep doing that any longer.
For the majority of nonprofits, their missions are under attack in the current political situation both directly through loss of funding—whether it be for arts, health, or the social safety net—and indirectly through the larger moral crises we are undergoing. The arts are threatened when free expression and assembly are threatened, and when the creative juices inspired by diverse peoples living together is threatened. Hospitals are threatened by a resurgence in the uninsured. Organizations that serve children will suffer if the public schools those children attend are dismantled and destroyed through privatization. And so forth.
Luckily, the idea that nonprofits are not allowed to take a political stand is untrue. There are some limits, but here’s what they are and are not:
They can not take sides for or against a candidate for election, nor engage in or use resources for any partisan activities. (Despite fears to the contrary, this does not mean a nonprofit cannot comment on the sitting president or his policies just because he has filed for re-election early. They can as long as they do not make any commentary about the 2020 election.) This limitation is good, since it keeps charities from being pressured to make endorsements or launder campaign contributions.
They can make unlimited commentary about issues, both to the public and directly to legislators. This does not count as lobbying. Lobbying is only telling a legislator your opinion on specific legislation (direct lobbying) or telling the public your opinion on specific legislation while including a very specific call to action (grassroots lobbying). (Without the call to action it is not lobbying.)
And anyway, they can lobby, as long as they don’t spend too large a percentage of their budget on doing so (either up to 5 or 20 percent of your annual expenditures depending on how they report it on their taxes, according to the American Bar Assocation).
Even if organizations don’t feel up for tracking lobbying expenditures or spending a lot of time (we’re all overworked already, I know) there are many fairly simple ways to not be silent, organizationally. For example:
Endorse non-partisan events, such as interfaith vigils for fair immigration rules or responses to hate crimes. Send speakers. Make visible banners.
Add their name to sign-on letters (not random online petitions, but curated letters on specific topics seeking organizational signatories).
Make it a policy to register their residents, members, clients, or patients to vote (without telling them how to vote or what party to sign up for of course).
Write an op-ed or letter to the editor, pass a board resolution, or write an open letter in support of values that are under attack, drawing connections to their work, perhaps jointly with other similar organizations.
Of course many organizations are doing some or all of these things already (and their leaders are doing much more on their limited free time). But many are not.
What would happen if we all asked the organizations we interact with to use their voices and put themselves on the record for decency and democracy instead of lying low?
(For more tips and support for being an outspoken nonprofit, check out the Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy site.)