There’s no shortage of examples of how partisan politics can have an undue influence on all aspects of society, so I should not be surprised by the news that the IRS has admitted to targeting certain right-leaning organizations that were applying for nonprofit status.
I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was.
Why? Because the IRS should know better. They are responsible for ensuring that nonprofit organizations are not crossing the line in terms of political activity. They — more than anyone else — should understand that the politicization of nonprofit organizations, including the review process for nonprofit status, is a dangerous and slippery slope.
The IRS has created a complex set of policies and restrictions related to political activities and expression by nonprofit organizations that guide the different types of activities in which nonprofits can participate. And, as the enforcement agency for these guidelines, they hold the power to decide the fate of tens of thousands of new potential nonprofits each year, not to mention the power to audit or investigate existing entities for impermissible activities.
Of course, there’s widespread misunderstanding about what nonprofit organizations can and cannot do under these guidelines. So much so that some have called for a change to these regulations. BoardSource’s position — which is described more fully in a recent paper we submitted as a part of my participation in the Panel on the Nonprofit Sector for the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations — is that these regulations not only ensure that nonprofit organizations (specifically 501(c)(3) organizations) stay true to the public benefit purpose for which they were granted their 501(c)(3) status, but actually protect nonprofit organizations from being politically bullied by candidates or parties that might benefit from more active engagement from nonprofits in electoral politics.
This is not to say, however, that nonprofit organizations cannot — or should not — engage in advocacy and lobbying efforts, which help inform the public and elected officials about important policy issues that impact an organization’s mission. This is fully permissible under IRS regulations, and something that we at BoardSource encourage.
So where does that leave nonprofits? Or at least those of us with a 501(c)(3) status? Walking an important fine line right down the middle. We need to stay independent enough of political electioneering to stay true to our missions but need to advocate powerfully enough to ensure that our missions advance.
It’s a fine line, but one that I believe we need to protect and preserve. And we need the IRS to do the same.
For more information about the lobbying and advocacy rules for your organization, check out the Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy project. If you’re interested in staying apprised of the news on the IRS scandal, both the National Council of Nonprofits and Independent Sector are tracking the story.