Minefields or Movements? Nonprofits and the Election Process

Written by: Dan Petegorsky

Date: September 15, 2015

“Tell me what I can do, not what I can’t do.”

Luz Vega Marquis, President and CEO, Marguerite Casey Foundation

This week, a notice for a webinar on “Election Season Considerations for Nonprofits” stopped us dead in our tracks. We get a lot of emails like this one, and although collectively NCRP is well versed in the laws and regulations, the teaser language gave us pause: “Know the Legal Minefields for Nonprofits in Election Season and Remain Aware as a Nonprofit Entity.”

The idea that nonprofits’ engagement in election season activities somehow constitutes a potentially lethal threat to their existence is an insidious notion – and yet, far too many foundations, consultants, attorneys, etc. continue to convey such ominous warnings. To the contrary: while there are indeed rules that are important to follow, participation in the electoral and public policy process is not only perfectly legal but vital for nonprofits and the constituents they serve. Without that active participation, those constituencies will only continue to watch from the sidelines instead of developing and honing strategies that assert their interests and mobilize their members to create change in their communities.

Ironically, such negative language results in the same fear that is used to disenfranchise or demonize voters from marginalized communities – communities that many of these organizations serve. If one looks at the title from a marketing perspective, the presenter is exhibiting best practices. What better way to get people to react quickly, and pay, than to agitate their fears? If, however, the presenter’s goal is to empower nonprofits to better engage in the election process, this framing has failed: one cannot build real power by reinforcing existing anxieties.

The opening quote from Luz Vega Marquis underscores findings from a series of NCRP reports about the positive impact nonprofits and foundations can achieve when they pursue and support systems change strategies. Such an attitude empowers foundations, and the nonprofits they fund, to look for opportunities to engage in the political process. The real threat to survival is not participating. So instead of frightening people into reticence and inaction, let’s encourage them to participate to the full legal extent.

Tell us how your organization is looking for ways to engage in the election process and other systems change strategies.

Dan Petegorsky is Senior Fellow at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), leading a civic engagement initiative. Jeanné Isler is field director at NCRP leading outreach and engagement activities and campaigns. Follow @NCRP on Twitter.