Navigating Politics and Elections as a Nonprofit Organization

Navigating Politics and Elections as a Nonprofit Organization

With the next presidential election less than a year away, politics are inevitably in the air at the workplace, and this may be causing some tension. Employees might be talking, sometimes arguing, and sometimes participating in one campaign or another. 

Venable, a law firm with a large nonprofit practice, offers some valuable information regarding what nonprofits may be required to do—or are prohibited from doing—about their employees’ desire to participate in the electoral process. If you believe the First Amendment protects political speech in the workplace, please read on. That is not the case.

Employees and Political Activity

501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofits are mandated to prohibit employees from using the nonprofit’s time and resources to support or oppose a candidate. This includes but may not be limited to:

  • Making campaign flyers on the office copier
  • Using the organization’s member or donor lists to pinpoint potential campaign donors
  • Involving work-issued telephone numbers, email addresses, office addresses, or your organization’s name when communicating with candidates or otherwise participating in a political campaign

(501(c)(4), (5), and (6) tax-exempt nonprofits are permitted, but not required, to restrict these activities). 

In some states, political activity relating to elections,  an employee using your nonprofit’s resources, such as conference rooms, member or donor lists, or overnight delivery services, must promptly pay the organization for the use of such resources, or the organization may be charged with making an illegal, in-kind contribution.

Paraphernalia

You may ban campaign paraphernalia as a part of a neutral dress code. You also may tell employees not to post campaign signs in their cubicle or on their desk, or tell them to remove a campaign sign from their workspace. But you can not discipline an employee for wearing a candidate’s name button.

Discussions

You may prohibit employees from engaging in conversations regarding controversial topics in the workplace during work hours, including political discussions. But be careful not to restrict political speech that might relate to labor or working conditions. Also, be sure discussions do not turn into conversations about legally protected characteristics (age, gender, religion, etc.)

Elected Officials

Some states regulate the ability of elected officials to sit on or receive compensation from a corporate board. In addition, some states prohibit the use of public resources and confidential information to benefit a business with which the individual is associated.

In Conclusion 

Policies prohibiting political activity will likely be viewed more favorably if the policy captures political activity along with more neutral activities—for example, a dress code that prohibits all t-shirts will also prohibit political t-shirts. 

Do you have a policy regarding employee political activity? Once a policy is in place, review it with an attorney to ensure compliance with current laws, including applicable laws in your state; and train managers about what is permitted and how to enforce it.

Though nonprofit organizations do not function in the same ways as traditional businesses, there are just as many liabilities and risk exposures to consider in running the operation. Here at VIS, we specialize in risk management and insurance for nonprofit and volunteer-driven organizations. Are you looking for more information? For just $25 per year, joining VIS will give you access to our VIS Vault of risk management information — and substantial discounts on a number of products and services. Join today!

About VIS

Volunteers Insurance Service Association, Inc. (VIS) was established in 1972 for the purpose of providing insurance and risk management services for volunteer-based organizations. In addition to still providing these insurance services today on a nationwide scale, we have expanded to provide noninsurance resources for members to manage their risks and improve their operations. By transferring the volunteer risk exposure to our program, we can help you protect your organization. Contact us today at (800) 222-8920 for more information on our programs and services.