Op-Ed: Don’t mix politics into nonprofits

For nearly 30 years now I’ve worked in the non-profit sector, and that work has always been focused on the mission – for me, it’s been low income housing, municipal development, and economic development. Nonprofits, which are exempt from taxation because of the charitable purposes they serve, typically develop expertise and a deep knowledge base in their particular area of service whether that’s a religious ministry, a summer camp for kids with cancer, Ducks Unlimited, a soup kitchen, or a YMCA.

Because of a little-known rule called the Johnson Amendment, passed in 1954, nonprofits have been prohibited from taking part in electoral politics, i.e. endorsing candidates and making campaign contributions. But some national legislators are now trying to repeal the Johnson Amendment through Congress’ omnibus spending bill to allow nonprofits to support political candidates. The Johnson Amendment only restricts charitable organizations’ ability to engage in political activity. It does not restrict their free speech or capacity to participate in public policy. Charitable organizations remain able to advocate around mission-driven issues that affect our communities and our country (independentsector.org; also see bolderadvocacy.org about IRS regulations on nonprofit lobbying activity).

Repealing the electioneering prohibition would remove the firewall between nonprofits and election-related activities. If the Amendment is repealed, people would effectively be allowed to get tax deductions for making political donations, and nonprofits could use their assets to make political contributions. Supporters of this repeal are calling it a move toward free speech and religious freedom, but the repeal proposals would have the effect of introducing partisan politics into charities, houses of worship, and foundations to benefit politicians and paid political consultants.

Shouldn’t there be some places in our communities where we can maintain political neutrality?  Where credibility isn’t determined by your politics? Please urge your legislators to keep the Johnson Amendment in place.

Kristin Carpenter is the executive director of the Copper River Watershed Project.