NASAA Notes: July 2012


Jonathan Katz Headshot

Jonathan Katz

July issue
Back to all issues
July 13, 2012

Campaigning for Public Arts Support

As election politics intensify and voting time draws near, it is important that those who value broad, deep and diverse participation in the arts engage actively in the process of airing issues and selecting public officials. The same rights and restrictions that apply to advocacy by government employees, appointed volunteers and those affiliated with not-for-profit arts groups apply at this time, when all kinds of candidate events—town hall meetings, constituent gatherings and candidate forums—offer opportunities for individuals to voice their own positions on public arts support, to demonstrate that a significant constituency shares their views and to ask questions of the candidates.

Thinking in the broadest terms, democracy works best when voters are informed about issues and participate fully in the political process. While we may not use our government roles or not-for-profit affiliations to advocate for specific candidates, we may certainly urge the public at large to participate in the election process and to vote. That general encouragement can just as well come from a stage or a gallery or a movie screen or event program as it can from a classroom or a pulpit. We all benefit, whatever our party affiliation or general leanings, from hearing the facts and arguments of people well informed on economics, foreign policy, school administration, military history and other topics. So, too, society benefits when people well informed about the nature and benefits of the arts share what they think and recommend.

This is the last week that I have the legislative counsel of both Tom Birch and Isaac Brown available to me, and I want to express my gratitude to them for taking advantage of a time of overlap to aid in this transition. Both have reminded me that NASAA has a useful NASAA Advocate brief, Campaigning for Public Arts Support, that offers good guidance on the tax law that applies to the range of political activities in which not-for-profit groups may engage. NASAA members often hear that their constituents are unsure of the roles they can legally play as advocates without jeopardizing the tax exempt status of not-for-profits with which they are affiliated.

In a nutshell, the Internal Revenue Code prevents tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations from “participating or intervening” in a political campaign on behalf of a candidate for office. This in no way prohibits individuals associated with a not-for-profit organization from participating as private citizens in campaign activity. Furthermore, the federal tax law permits not-for-profit groups to engage in a range of activities, including the following:

Taking Positions: The law permits 501(c)(3) organizations to inform candidates of the organization’s positions and to ask candidates to go on record in support of these positions.

* Questionnaires to Candidates: Organizations with a broad range of policy interests can safely distribute questionnaires to candidates and disseminate the responses, provided there is no indication of bias or preference in respect to the views of any candidate for an office.

* Voting Records: Organizations may inform their members how each legislator voted on issues of concern to the organization. This information may be disseminated during a campaign as long as it is in the same unbiased manner as at other times, with no editorial opinion and no approval or disapproval of individual voting records. However, a guide to voting records on a narrow range of issues is looked upon unfavorably by the Internal Revenue Service when distributed by an organization concerned with those same issues.

Invitations to Candidates: An organization may invite candidates to attend its meetings and to speak on issues of interest to the organization. Copies of a candidate’s speeches or other remarks may be distributed if the organization regularly publishes a newsletter and circulation generally is limited to its own members.

Nonprofit Research: Where research and studies prepared by a tax-exempt organization are made available to the general public, as well as to political candidates, the organization will not be determined as promoting the candidacy of an individual for public office.

* Arts organizations generally are not considered broad enough in scope or interest to satisfy this requirement.

NASAA encourages members to remind your constituents of the political participation options available to them as citizens and as not-for-profit affiliates, and suggests sharing pertinent information from issues of the NASAA Advocate series with your constituents. In addition to the information available in issues of the NASAA Advocate, NASAA members may contact Legislative Counsel Isaac Brown for relevant advice.

In this Issue

State to State

Legislative Update

More Notes from NASAA

Executive Director's Column

Research on Demand




To receive information regarding updates to our newslettter. Please fill out the form below.