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Advocacy | July 8, 2022

In Support of Democracy: What Nonprofits Can Do

As our political climate continues to heat up, nonprofits continue to play a critical role in supporting a democracy where every voice is heard and every vote gets counted. In Pennsylvania, nonprofits employ 15% of the Commonwealth’s workforce – over 807,000 people. If we come together around a common cause – such as voter engagement – we will transform our collective future.

 

In our everyday busyness, we often relegate lobbying and engaging with our elected officials to the end of our task list. However, many nonprofits exist because of inequitable laws, regulations, policies, and practices. Thus, we must prioritize this work.

 

As a 501(c)(3), your organization can lobby and promote civic engagement with every level of government – local, state, and federal.  You are a trusted resource in your community. You have earned that trust. Now is the time to use it.

 

Following is a checklist of allowable activities that 501(c)(3)s can engage in:

 

  1. Build Relationships with Your local, State, and Federal Representatives Year-Round (not just when you want to ask for something). Examples of this:
  • Invite ALL representatives, including candidates, to your events. Use this opportunity to promote your mission.
  • Invite ALL representatives, including candidates, to take a tour of your facilities. Use this opportunity to tell them about how you support their local community.
  • Meet with ALL currently elected representatives in their district offices.

Caveat: Do not meet with candidates in their campaign headquarters.

  1. Promote Voter Registration
  • Routinely ask those who engage with you daily if they have registered to vote and offer guidance to those who need it.
  • Hold a voter registration drive at your nonprofit or at a community event.
  • Encourage voter registration in your communications, on your website, and at your events.
  • Remind people of registration deadlines and dates.
  1. Create, Distribute, and Publish a Candidate Questionnaire
  • Draft 1-5 questions around issues that matter to your mission and cause. (The 1-5 is intended to keep the questionnaire manageable for both you and candidates who participate.)
  • Send the questions in an electronic format to ALL candidates.
  • Publish the full answers from all the participating candidates on your website.
  1. Host a Candidate Forum

This may feel like it is treading on the line of what 501 (c)(3)s can’t do, but this is permissible, if you follow one simple rule: invite ALL the candidates to your forum. Even if all do not show up, ensure you have given all an equal opportunity to engage.

  • Host a candidate forum either on your own, or better yet, in partnership with a trusted community partner, and invite candidates to speak on issues that matter to you.
  • Use a panel format where you ask the questions you want answered.
  • Ensure that all participants are given equal times to speak.
  1. Educate Your Constituents and Staff about the Voting Process – for Every Election
  • Provide information about when and where to vote – finding the right precinct, obtaining an absentee ballot, contacting local election offices.
  • Remind people about election deadlines and dates.
  1. Distribute Nonpartisan Voter Guides
  • Distribute a nonpartisan voter guide from a trusted partner what is on the ballot.
    • Ballot questions can be confusing and often need interpretation about what a “yes” or “no” ultimately means to the furtherance of your mission.
  1. Host a Community Conversation on a Ballot Measure

Unlike distributing information promoting/opposing specific candidates, nonprofits may take sides on ballot measures. IRS rules treat this like a lobbying activity, not electioneering – which is endorsement of candidates.

  • Have your board take a position for or against a question on the ballot.
  • Educate the public on your position within your normal lobbying limits.
  • Engage your community leaders and residents in conversations about impact of a ballot measure at the neighborhood, county, or state level.
  1. Give Staff Paid Time Off to Vote

Be intentional with organizational plans on election day.

  • Provide all staff an equal opportunity to hit the polls so that they don’t need to choose between voting and their paycheck.
  • Make “Paid Time Off to Vote” an organizational policy.
  • Provide transportation if needed.
  • Make Election Day fun! Celebrate a democracy where every vote is counted and every voice is heard. Share your celebration ideas with us to inspire PANO members.
  1. Transport Clients, Staff, and Volunteers to the Polls
  • On election day, provide transportation to the polls for clients, staff, and volunteers.
  1. Continue Issue Advocacy During an Election
  • Continue to advocate and lobby for issues related to pending legislation or issues related to your mission – as long as it is not timed or structured to influence how people vote for specific candidates.

 

We Can Do This – We Must Do This

Pick at least one (1) thing that you plan to do, and let us know (email: info@pano.org). And then share the stories of what is working (or not). We need both courage and encouragement. We can do this – together.

 

In closing, we recognize that everything is now seen through a political lens. We do not believe this is political, but rather an encouragement for everyone to fully participate in our democratic system. We seek to protect the unalienable rights of every human, and look forward to doing this with you.

In Support of Democracy,

  • Beth Docherty, PANO Board Chair
  • Anne Gingerich, PANO Executive Director
  • Ifeoma Aduba, PANO Strategy Committee Chair
  • Mark Aurand, PANO Public Policy Committee Chair
  • Mary Bula, PANO Governance Committee Chair
  • Tolu Omodara, PANO Racial Justice Committee Chair

 

Notes:

  • For training and additional resources for your board/staff about nonprofit lobbying don’ts, tracking lobbying expenses, and more, contact PANO at support@pano.org.
  • This information should not be considered legal advice. Laws vary from state to state.

 

Sources:

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