Don’t Let the Presidential Elections Halt Your Advocacy Efforts
Here’s what presidential elections mean for the advocacy space: higher advertising rates, oversaturated email lists, and the public’s interest diverted away from your organization’s issue (where it belongs) and instead focused on daily presidential campaign minutiae.
Every four years, the chances are good that your advocacy organization is starting to feel the frustration pains of competing with the presidential election for resources, manpower and mindshare beyond the days and months leading up to Election Day.
But you don’t have to sideline your grassroots efforts during the presidential election or any other election cycle – you can actually deploy some techniques during this opportune moment to continue the success of your program, provided you stay within certain guidelines.
If you are a 501 (c) (4) non-profit organization as designated by the Internal Revenue Code, you certainly have more avenues for participation, but 501 (c) (3) organizations can also benefit from the timeliness of an election.
What can 501 (c) (3) grassroots advocacy programs do during presidential elections?
- Host an educational and non-partisan public forum
- Produce a voter education guide
- Host a voter registration drive
What CAN’T 501 (c) (3) grassroots advocacy programs do during presidential elections?
- Contribute to campaign funds nor help solicit funds
- Make public statements supporting or opposing a candidate
- Directly or indirectly participate in any political campaign
Consequences for 501 (c) (3) grassroots advocacy programs engaging in prohibited activities:
- Engaging in prohibited activities may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status
- Engaging in prohibited activities may result in imposition of certain excise taxes
- Engaging in partisan activity also has the potential to alienate or fragment your membership/organization. Be especially mindful of damaging your donor database.
How do 501 (c) (3) grassroots advocacy programs indirectly benefit from presidential elections?
- Presidential elections are expensive and usher in new technology and grassroots organizing tools that can later be applied in the advocacy space.
- Presidential elections provide experience to people in high-level grassroots organizing. When the campaign is over, campaign staff can seek permanent employment with advocacy organizations.
- Presidential elections offer the possibility of change. If the outgoing administration had an agenda that didn’t align with your organizational goal, the election results may present organizations with a new set of officials in a new political environment. Change presents a perfect opportunity to jumpstart your advocacy efforts, and all for education of newly elected leaders.
- Presidential elections increase engagement of the general public across a broad set of political issues
- Presidential elections educate the public on policy issues during the campaign cycle
Grassroots advocacy is constantly moving. A successful program will adapt to external factors, like presidential elections, by finding ways to take advantage.
Presidential elections cast a long shadow, but that doesn’t mean you have to sideline your advocacy efforts or halt your contribution to the political process.
Please note I am a non-attorney writer whose level of expertise is in grassroots advocacy and not campaign finance law or tax law. Consult an attorney and/or the applicable tax code for specific information.
The Restriction of Political Campaign Intervention by Section 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Organizations. (2015, January 6). Retrieved October 15, 2015.
Joshua Habursky is the Senior Manager of Grassroots Advocacy at the American Diabetes Association and adjunct faculty member of the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University.