The NonProfit Times (NPT) has a recent article titled "With Election Around The Corner, Charities Must Tread Carefully." It discusses 501(c)(3) entities (which most think tanks are) and what types of political activities they are legally allowed to engage in.
Following are some excerpts:
The presidential election is less than 100 days away. Federal tax law strictly prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations from engaging in activities to support or oppose candidates for public office. However, there are still a number of ways that 501(c)(3)s can be involved in the political process without running afoul of the law.
Unfortunately, the line between prohibited and permissible activities is murky and can be easily crossed if proper managers of the 501(c)(3) are not careful in how they plan and execute the activities. Now might be a good time to review the rules that will help stay on the right side of the line while involved in the process.
If done correctly, 501(c)(3)s can:
- Help register voters;
- Conduct get-out-the-vote (GOTV) activities;
- Publish voter guides;
- Create candidate questionnaires;
- Host candidate appearances;
- Host debates;
- Conduct issue advocacy;
- Allow leadership and staff to be politically active; and,
- Create an affiliated organization.
The key is to remember that these activities must be nonpartisan, and not favor one candidate over another.
Here is some more information from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) about 501(c)(3) think tank restrictions on their lobbying and political activities. ...ThinkTankWatch
So. How about, say, the Heritage Foundation, a think tank funded by the Kochs (among others) who, you'll remember, channeled big dollars to the tea party movement. Or -- hey! -- ALEC!
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) appears to be anticipating an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) audit, after multiple complaints challenging the "corporate bill mill's" charitable status, based on documents recently obtained by Bloomberg News.
According to internal ALEC documents, the organization has discussed forming a nonprofit organized under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, apparently in anticipation of the IRS revoking ALEC's current "charitable" status. Charities (which are organized under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code) as well as nonprofits are tax exempt, but ALEC's charitable status had allowed its corporate members to write-off their ALEC membership dues and costs as tax-deductible charitable contributions.
ALEC's charitable status has been challenged in multiple IRS complaints in the past year -- and despite publicly dismissing the allegations as "patently false" and "ignor[ing] applicable law," behind the scenes, ALEC's leadership apparently recognizes their vulnerability. ...PRWatch, Center for Media and Democracy, 12/2012.
So yeah. Great minds are making similar connections about dubious groups claiming non-profit status when they are clearly engaged in partisan politics. We have to be careful, but above all we need to be clear about what really constitutes a non-profit, non-partisan "social welfare" organization. I mean, come on!
I have yet to get my head around how the tea party movement, except for the first months of its existence (mostly before it took the name "tea party"), can be considered a non-partisan and non-profit, tax exempt organization. I'm sure there have been abuses on both political sides this issue, but not equivalent abuses -- not that I've seen.
Let’s be very clear: because the Internal Revenue Service holds so much private data, and because it can make people’s lives absolutely miserable, it is of paramount importance in our political system that it both is, and is perceived as, an apolitical entity. If it discriminated against tea party groups that attempted to register as 501(c)4 social welfare organizations, then that’s a grave offense, and it needs to be investigated thoroughly and dealt with severely.
But the particular bias people are angry about is the opposite of the bias they should be angry about. The problem wasn’t that the IRS was skeptical of tea party groups registering as 501(c)4s. It’s that it hasn’t been skeptical of Organizing for America, Crossroads GPS, Priorities USA and Heritage Action Fund registering as 501(c)4s. The IRS should be treating all these groups equally and appropriately — which would mean much more harshly.
Instead, the IRS has permitted 501(c)4s to grow into something monstrous. And if they cower in the aftermath of this embarrassment, it might make matters even worse.
Social welfare organizations have a couple of neat advantages. They’re tax-exempt — which means, in effect, that your tax dollars subsidize them. And thanks to a 1958 court case, they don’t have to disclose their donors.
But they’re not meant to be political. A 2003 IRS document says that “organizations that promote social welfare should primarily promote the common good and general welfare of the people of the community as a whole.”...Ezra Klein, WaPo
As Jonathan Chait points out, there is something particularly cruddy about Heritage. But maybe Heritage will crumble all by itself, without any help from the IRS. It's had enough "help" from within,from Jason Redwine and his noxious arrogance and racism.
The fallout from the Heritage Foundation’s immigration reform study has developed into a watershed moment for the prospects of passing a bill. The release of the study prompted a fierce backlash from proponents of reform, which compounded when Dylan Matthews reported that Jason Richwine, a co-author of the study, wrote a dissertation arguing, “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.”Heritage has found itself in a public relations crisis, and announced Richwine was leaving the conservative think-tank. ...Chait, Daily Intel