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After listening to recent media coverage reporting that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) delayed the application process for a range of organizations such as Tea Party groups and others for 501(c)(4) nonprofit status as social welfare organizations, it may seem that the majority of nonprofits in the United States are overtly political or partisan in nature. However, the statistics prove otherwise. As reported by Independent Sector, of the 1.6 million registered nonprofits in the United States in 2011, only 6 percent (or 97,882) were classified as 501(c)(4) organizations – nonprofit entities which can lobby freely for political causes. In contrast, roughly 69 percent (or 1.1 million) of these organizations were 501(c)(3) organizations, or public charities, such as hospitals, theaters, human service organizations and community foundations.
Distinctions should be made between 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations. Because 501(c)(3) organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA) are understood to be public charities, the IRS requires that 501(c)(3) organizations must not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of their activities. And since these activities are intended to advance the public good, contributions to these organizations are tax deductible. The same privilege is not extended to the smaller number of 501(c)(4) organizations in the United States. Due to their active involvement in influencing public policy, social welfare organizations like the Sierra Club forfeit such tax deductible contributions. The most partisan of nonprofits, Political Action Committees (PACs) such as the Service Employees International Union PAC are not regulated by the IRS like their 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) counterparts, but by the Federal Election Commission. And unlike public charities and social welfare organizations, PACs are permitted to endorse candidates in political campaigns.
While the IRS prohibits public charities from engaging in partisan activities, it would be incorrect to state that these nonprofits are not politically engaged. Indeed, it is fairly easy to conflate the terms “political” with “partisan” in the United States given the seemingly non-stop media coverage of political candidates and campaigns. In his work On Being Nonprofit (2002), Peter Frumkin provides an accessible way of envisioning a range of civic and political engagement by nonprofits, laying out a continuum of nonprofit activities. From least to most partisan these activities include: (1) building social capital, (2) promoting civic engagement, (3) encouraging political participation, (4) participating in policy advocacy, (5) lobbying and (6) financing political campaigns.
In examining this continuum, it is clear that a majority of public charities take part in the less partisan, but equally political, activities of social capital, civic engagement, political participation and policy advocacy. In addition to providing valued services, most 501(c)(3) organizations are politically engaged, encouraging their community constituents to show support at local events, register to vote and write to their congressperson on significant issues of the day. Indeed, these activities flow directly from nonprofits’ belief in living out their mission, whether that is ending animal abuse, supporting urban farming or providing training for out-of-work individuals. While none of these activities could be labeled “partisan,” they certainly could be considered political to the degree that they inspire the larger community to be active participants and agents of change in the public arena, so that their voice can be properly heard.
The advancement of service and advocacy is highlighted as one of the six practices of high-impact nonprofits in Forces for Good (2012) by Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant. On the one hand, nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity began as a service organization and later became involved in advocacy around issues of poverty housing and homelessness. On the other hand, the Environmental Defense Fund started as an advocacy organization and later added more attention to creating environmental programming. The authors make the case that there is a natural movement for high-impact nonprofits to engage in direct service and policy advocacy due to their vested interest in serving others and creating large-scale change. In sum, these authors argue that high-impact nonprofits “bridge the divide between service and advocacy, and become good at doing both. And the more they advocate and serve, the greater impact they achieve” (38).
Nonprofits have a significant advantage in the field of political engagement – they can navigate the public arena in ways that advance general ideas and ideals, and in so doing, can hold both political parties accountable. Furthermore, by encouraging community constituents and stakeholders to become civically aware, nonprofits become important sites of political mobilization. In Voice and Equality (1995) Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady demonstrate that social institutions – among which rank a variety of nonprofit organizations – facilitate political participation by providing individuals access to resources, civic skills, interpersonal networks and opportunities for political recruitment.
Nonprofit political engagement is not a new storyline in American public life. In Democracy in America, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville chronicled with amazement “the immense assemblage of associations” in the United States in the 1830s. “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations,” he writes. Tocqueville witnessed a mutually reinforcing relationship between civic involvement and political association, and he saw this as a net benefit to American democracy. He states, “civil associations…facilitate political association; but on the other hand, political association singularly strengthens and improves associations for civil purposes.” Both the push-and-pull and collaborative nature of nonprofits and their political counterparts in the United States are unique features of representative democracy. And as the 1.6 million nonprofits attest, they are features that are likely here to stay.
Author: Catherine E. Wilson is an associate professor and nonprofit coordinator in the Department of Public Administration at Villanova University. Email: [email protected]