Why Non-Profit Employers Need a Political Activity Policy
As a general rule, most non-profits must be completely nonpartisan – they cannot engage in political campaigning. The rules concerning non-profit lobbying are complex and must be followed carefully. This restriction is the fair price of tax-exempt status and most non-profits are acutely aware of coming within a “legal mile” of illegal campaigning, ballot initiatives or lobbying. The penalties and consequences to tax exempt status and donor relations are quite significant.
But what about the political activities of a non-profit’s employees? Are they also prohibited from such partisan activities? In an election year that is a common question for a non-profit employer, especially when many non-profit employees are politically active, public-minded citizens and many candidates and political initiatives would like the prestige of being associated with a foundation, important service agency, hospital, college or school.
The answer is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – the employees can be partisan so long as they are not on employer time, using employer resources or leading others to believe they speak for the non-profit. To preserve this legal distinction requires that the non-profit develop an employment policy “wall” between the employee’s personal time public activities and public actions that are or give the appearance of being on behalf of the non-profit or using non-profit resources. Such a “wall” will address matters such as requiring that political activities not occur during paid working time (except when using PTO) and allowing the employee to identify his or her place of employment at a campaign event so long as they also make clear that they are not participating as a spokesperson of the non-profit.
There are several other developed norms that should be addressed in such “wall” policies to preserve the balance between personal political activity and the important prohibition against partisan political activities by a corporation that has been accorded the privilege of tax-exempt status.
Takeaway: A non-profit employer should have a “Political Activity” policy that builds the necessary wall between employee personal political activities and work-related activities. The policy should be written to be specific to the non-profit’s mission, the work of its employees, and the nature of their potential political or lobbying activities. This will avoid otherwise legal employee partisan political actions being attributed to the non-profit and thereby becoming illegal – Ah Democracy!