Nonprofits Should Remain Switzerland

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 8th, 2017 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Time and again, we see a problem of a few being addressed by a response that pulls in the masses.  Such is the idea of repealing the Johnson Amendment.  Religious organizations that are considered to be 501(c)(3) organizations already have a number of exemptions to the rules that govern the rest of the sector; why not do that here?  If it is so important to allow all religious leaders to be able to make political endorsements and preach politics, then Congress and the IRS should do what it does so well:  give them another exemption.  But don’t provide the rest of the sector the open invitation to succumb to the treacherous siren of being political.

Being forced to be politically neutral has actually been a great gift that too few recognize, in part because of their own confusion about what they can and can’t do.  Just what do you think will be gained by being able to endorse candidates, tell people for whom to vote, put signs in your office windows?  The Johnson Amendment has actually saved nonprofits from many potential traps.  After all, being engaged in politics is much more dangerous than you might think.

  • Nonprofits don’t need any help neglecting mission. Dangle dollars in front of many of them, and they will happily chase, regardless of whether the chase leads them off their mission path.  By needing to remain politically neutral you are freed from having to even consider the costs of cozying up to one side of the aisle or the other, let alone actually doing it, in order to woo dollars.  Recently, I met a State Representative at an event where neither of us was in our official roles.  I made an offhanded remark about WAM dollars; in mock indignation, he said, “We don’t have WAM money anymore; we have grants.”  Grants/WAM; tomato/tomato.  When it is money coming from a politician, it comes with partisanship, perceived or real, and every nonprofit must immediately balance that.
  • Nonprofits don’t need to be a partisan shuttlecock. It is impossible to dip just a toe into the partisan waters of politics.  Once you enter that fray, you are all in, at the mercy of all to be used to suit their needs and interests.  Aligning with one politician makes you fair game for her/his opponents, whether deserved or not.  As with anyone with whom you associate—from board member to donor—you are completely aligned with that person, for the good s/he does today and the bad s/he may do tomorrow.  You become known for your associates and the real work that you do becomes beside the point. You are a pawn in the politicians’ own battle for positioning.
  • With politics there is always tit for tat. It is a twist on Newton’s third law of physics: for everything given (by the politician) there is an equal thing expected to be done in return (by, in this case, the nonprofit).  There isn’t a real nonprofit out there that has time to spare to work on the needs and wants of politicians when it should be focusing on the needs and wants of its mission.

So, there is this messy stuff called politics and the clean stuff called advocacy.  You actually advance your mission, while simultaneously ensuring its protection, by entering the political arena unfettered through advocacy.  With advocacy you educate all equally; you are looking to enlighten, seeking nothing in return except your listeners’ clearer, more accurate understanding (which, yes, you hope will lead to passing laws and policies based on that clearer understanding).

But in advocacy, you are always focused on enhancing your mission, and don’t risk entangling your organization with the quid pro quo expectations of support, endorsements, etc.   You also don’t risk offending a donor base that is far more politically diverse for most nonprofits than we may realize.

Unwittingly, nonprofits have benefited from the imposed neutrality, like Switzerland immunized from having to take sides, step into the fracas.  We should not want to lose it.



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