Non-partisan, non-profit. How non-partisan do I need to be personally?
June 3, 2013 9:39 AM   Subscribe

While running a non-partisan non-profit, how non-partisan do I need to be personally? What would you say is expected of me?

I'm starting a non-profit that will aggregate public data in one particularly underserved U.S. state. We will also contribute to open source projects, distribute the software created by the non-profit, and organize crowd-sourcing efforts to create structured data from source documents.

I'm getting a crash course from a lawyer about what the organization itself can and can't do with regards to maintaining 501(c)(3) status. I feel that's well covered ground.

I'm asking more of what is expected of me as the leader of the organization. I'd like to be active in local progressive politics, and I'd hate to have to choose between the non-profit and my personal activities. For example, I'm a registered Democrat and contributed only to progressive candidates in 2012.

Do you have experience in this arena? How have you seen this situation navigated? Any thoughts? Obvious pitfalls?
posted by foggy out there now to Law & Government (10 answers total)
You should ask your lawyer this question.
posted by gauche at 9:43 AM on June 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Expanding on that a little bit: as a citizen you have the same ordinary rights as anybody. Your organization, on the other hand, can get in trouble if you exercise those rights in a way incompatible with its restrictions. So this is a question that is directly relevant to the well-being of the organization and its ongoing compliance with those laws and regulations by which it enjoys its tax status. This is a perfect question for your lawyer to answer.
posted by gauche at 9:47 AM on June 3, 2013

You will need to have these issues outlined in your bylaws and articles of incorporation, and while it is definitely something your lawyer can help you with (assuming this is a lawyer that specializes in issues pertaining to nonprofit organizations) it can also be helpful for you to join various small foundation organizations: Association of Small Foundations, etc.
posted by elizardbits at 10:12 AM on June 3, 2013

Definitely talk to your lawyer. But it seems like you're asking more about the politics of, well, your politics.

Anyway, it really depends. You need to think about your organization's situation with key stakeholders (donors, the population you serve, decision-makers you're trying to influence, your staff). Would your organization's mission be harmed if it was seen as being the project of an active Democrat?

How publicly active are you as a Democrat? Donating to Dem candidates and being registered as a Dem are fairly low-key (unless you're giving massive amounts), but it's another thing if you're hosting fundraisers, serving on your local party committee, writing op eds, etc. Once you get into public roles like that, it becomes a lot more important that you tread carefully - for instance, you need to always make sure that you are not presented by yourself or others as being a representative of your organization.

The other thing think about it is whether or not your organization might end up being controversial, or make enemies. If that is the case, then being an activist will be a problem, because it gives opponents something to go after your organization for (see: ACORN and Planned Parenthood).

I've worked in the nonprofit sector for over a decade and I've seen this handled all sorts of ways. A mother of a friend of mine runs a battered women's shelter in a very Republican area, and she's registered as a Republican (but votes for Democrats) to shield her organization for being attacked as some sort of feminist cabal. I've also known organizations that were started by high-profile progressive activists with very political aims in mind, but made damn sure that the organization's actions and publications were all very, very non-partisan. Those are two ends of the spectrum.
posted by lunasol at 10:18 AM on June 3, 2013

Aside from the legal stuff, which I know nothing about, if you're active in local progressive stuff, that may turn off some of the people whose buy-in you need. Any chance of collaborating with people on the other side of the aisle?
posted by mskyle at 10:20 AM on June 3, 2013

What kind of data is your organization going to deal with? If it's politically interesting data, you might consider how your political activity will make the non-profit look. For instance, the pro-Republican slant of the Diebold owners left a permanent doubt about their product in the minds of the non-Republican public. Similarly, if you are publicly and visibly political it may discredit your organization's credibility in the minds of non-progressives.

To put it another way, journalists* who cover politically charged stories are heavily discouraged from overt political activities (no donations, no lawn signs, etc). But reporters who write about animals, food and travel may face less restriction in their political activity.

*Obviously this doesn't apply to op-ed folks working for partisan media.
posted by feets at 11:23 AM on June 3, 2013

I know of journalists who do not register with a political party to avoid the appearance of bias. That strikes me as silly because where I live, the political primary is basically the main event and if you're not registered with a party, you can't participate in the primary. I don't think one should have to sacrifice their right to vote, even in part, because of what they do professionally except in rare circumstances (I say that because there are probably some but I can't think of any right now).

I used to work for a nonpartisan nonprofit. The director of our organization had previously worked for a party as a Senate staffer. His wife had worked on campaigns for candidates from the same party. But he was aggressively nonpartisan in his professional work. We basically could not have an event without representatives from both parties. I think it worked well. I felt like we weren't pretending to be robots who don't have opinions on issues but when we were working for our organization, we were aggressively nonpartisan. We received occasional complaints from both political parties saying that we were giving the other side too much credit. To me, that indicates that we did a good job.

I would make sure when you act in politics as a private citizen that it's very clear that you're doing what you're doing as a private citizen.
posted by kat518 at 11:41 AM on June 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: > But it seems like you're asking more about the politics of, well, your politics.

Exactly. That's what I'm trying to get at.

Some of the data itself is political in nature (hyperlocal campaign finance reports, minutes of obscure but critical utilities meetings, those types of things).

As for my own political involvement, it's currently limited to campaign contributions, attending some progressive-type meetings and calling my representatives to weigh-in on pending legislation. I would like to keep making campaign contributions and attending meetings, but some close friends are questioning whether I'll be able to continue to do that without a conflict of interest.

I'm fairly certain I'll be able to get a Republican to serve on the board of directors. A good percent of the government hijinks around here involve good-ole-boy Democrats.
posted by foggy out there now at 12:25 PM on June 3, 2013

make sure that anything you spend on political stuff comes from your own pocket (which sounds obvious, but weird situations occur where you're, say, traveling on the company dime and stop to do something political). and if you ever speak re politics, be sure to note that you're speaking in your individual capacity, and never do so at a company event.
posted by jpe at 5:49 PM on June 3, 2013

A lot of those questions are ones that can best be answered after a lawyer familiar with non-profit law and election law in your jurisdiction has weighed in. (Maybe this is because I work for a non-profit whose board is full of lawyers, but I've been regularly surprised at which things are A-OK and which are verboten.)
posted by klangklangston at 12:41 AM on June 4, 2013

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