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Non-Profits, Politics, and the Johnson Amendment


I suspect it is common knowledge that non-profit organizations are enviable due to the highly favorable tax status they enjoy.  But, there has to be a trade-off and with non-profits, one of the significant trade-offs is the prohibition against engaging in political activity.


In 1954 Congress enacted The Johnson Amendment to amend Section 501C(3) of the IRS code.  The amendment is the actual piece of law that prohibits non-profit organizations from engaging in political activity, including supporting candidates, circulating politically oriented materials, and speaking out against candidates.  In fact, an initial question in the application to become a non-profit organization requires you to affirm your organization exists solely for "religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purpose, foster national or international amateur sports competition…or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals."

Plainly, political activity does not fit within the rubric of a required purpose of a non-profit.  But, there's also a sneaky little thing called the First Amendment.  That Amendment is the Amendment that gives us freedom of speech.  This extreme contradiction has not, that I have seen (but I'll also admit I have not deeply researched), been litigated or addressed by the Supreme Court, but the contradiction is astounding.

What do you do then as a non-profit?  To me the answer is easy -- do not utter anything political that will draw attention from the IRS to your non-profit.  As an individual (i.e. not in the capacity of your non-profit), go out and walk the streets of America extolling the virtues of whoever it is you want.  

For seasoned non-profits this is not crazy new information.  But the basics should never be forgotten and are good to re-visit from time to time.


The material contained herein is provided for informational purposes only and is not legal advice, nor is it a substitute for obtaining legal advice from an attorney. Each situation is unique, and you should not act or rely on any information contained herein without seeking the advice of an experienced attorney. All information contained in links are the property of the linked site. 


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