I couldn’t agree more with Robert Egger’s call in The Chronicle of Philanthropy for nonprofits to challenge the prohibition of their involvement in politics: “the nonprofit world cannot allow the country’s future to be determined by a political process in which it has no role.”
In this election, in which the candidates are already heatedly debating complex issues such as universal health care, global warming, gay marriage, poverty, and farm subsidies, nonprofits need to weigh in. There’s a lot of confusion among the public as to which candidate’s policies are better. Nonprofits, who are battling these issues on the front lines every day, who are witness to which policies have failed and which policies have worked in the past, can help voters make critical decisions.
I’ve seen some of the democratic debates but I am still undecided, and I would love to hear from nonprofits that I trust on these issues. I’d love to hear what my local organic food co-op thinks about farm subsidies, or what the local homeless shelter thinks about John Edwards’ universal health policy. I’d love to hear from my local Peninsula Peace and Justice Center, which has been working on peace issues since the 1960s, about which candidate has the better foreign policy on the Middle East.
The current rule makes no sense. It was established in 1954 when Senator Lyndon B. Johnson sought a legislative route to silence some of his anticommunist critics. The U.S. Senate then passed a major tax code revision which, in effect, made the IRS the speech police.
“When the Internal Revenue Service was established, it had one purpose—to collect revenue for the general treasury,” writes Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article. “Over the past 50 years, that role has expanded and, to the chagrin of many people of faith, the IRS has become the “speech police”—holding a heavy hand over non-profit organizations, including churches, and threatening to remove their tax-exempt status if they participate in political activity….The law is flawed, misplaced and a disaster.”
Nonprofits should have every right to talk about the moral and political issues of the day, especially during political campaigns when they can affect the vote. (Of course, they would still need to abide by the current campaign finance laws that restrict donations to national political parties.) I just don’t see why nonprofits shouldn’t have the constitutional right to support or criticize politicians based on where the politicians stand on the issues. What do you think?
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Perla Ni, founder and former publisher of Stanford Social Innovation Review, is the founder and CEO of GreatNonprofits. She is also a co-founder of Grassroots.com.