When considering whether or how to promote your message in the political sphere, think through the following basic steps to determine the type of message that you think would be most effective, whether formalizing your group as a nonprofit is necessary, and the parameters of your advertising.
C. Political Advertising
- Political advocacy
- Speech—including financial expenditures—that “expressly calls for the election or defeat of a candidate for public office” is electoral/political advocacy.
- 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations are prohibited from engaging in electoral advocacy of any kind. But if you believe the problem your group aims to solve would be best served by engaging in political activity, then you have two other options:
- Form a 501(c)(4) organization. For activities like extensive lobbying, running ads about candidates or issues in an election cycle, or influencing the political dynamic around your issue, form a 501(c)(4) organization. (See below)
- Consider something other than nonprofit status, like a 527 Political Action Committee (PAC). This is a good option if you are interested in supporting candidates for office directly with financial donations. If you are interested in this type of political advocacy, you may want to hire professional political consultants to talk through how this would work, and most likely you would need to form what is known as a “527 political action” group, referring to section 527 of IRS Code. PACs donate directly to candidates with certain limitations established by the Federal Election Committee (FEC).
- 501(c)(4) nonprofits can engage in limited political activity—social welfare organizations can legally participate in political activity in support of or opposition to candidates for office; can engage in unlimited lobbying as long as the lobbying activity is “related to its tax-exempt purpose.”
- Limitations on 501(c)(4) political activity:
- Political advocacy
- Cannot donate money directly to candidates
- Political campaign activity must advance the organization’s social welfare purpose (for example, an organization formed to advance a solution to an environmental problem could support political candidates who agree with its positions or proposed solutions)
- Political activity may not be a social welfare organization’s primary activity (generally thought to be less than half of activity or resources, but this is not a clear area of law)
- Issues advocacy
- Expressing a viewpoint on an issue that may be relevant in a political context or campaign.
- Can 501(c)(3) organizations spend money to advocate for issues? Yes, but they cannot be political activities, so 501(c)(3) organizations should always avoid talking about an election, candidates, or votes. These ads should focus on the problem, and if there is a legislative solution it can train attention on the legislation and not on the legislators.
- Voter registration and “Get out the Vote” activities
- Issues advocacy
Activities “intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, are not prohibited political campaign activity” for 501(c)(3) organizations if conducted in a non-partisan manner.
- Many larger groups look for opportunities to form partnerships with smaller community groups to take up their cause as part of their mission or even just to provide grants and seed funding to support advocates and help with the needs that a formal organization would require. Existing non-profits can often serve as a fiscal sponsor for smaller groups or short-term campaigns by offering their 501(c)(3) status to collect and spend funds. Groups acting as fiscal sponsors often charge a percentage of the funds collected to cover their administrative costs, which can include staff time and expenses associated with insurance, audits, and other costs associated with running the umbrella organization.
- If you’ve discovered a unique problem or would like to have more control over how your issue is addressed or how your community is involved, then a new organization might be the right move. Keep in mind that there are many costs associated with starting a new non-profit from the filing and organization fees to the infrastructure costs of maintaining an office and staff, if you have them. There are regularly reporting and filing requirements for organized non-profits so it is important to consider all of these aspects before deciding whether to start a new group or partner with an existing one.
- 501(c)(3) charitable organization
- Pros: donations are tax-deductible; credibility as a charitable group with a charitable mission is easier to establish;
- Cons: significant limitations on political activity—can lobby, but only for a very small percentage of staff time or resources; cannot engage in political issue advertising.
- 501(c)(4) ‘social welfare’ organization
- Pros: can engage in issues advocacy and political activity (excluding express electoral advocacy) up to 49% of total activity, or any amount of time and resources that does not constitute a “primary purpose” (this is not clearly defined in IRS Code or regulations, and thus is completely open to interpretation); are not required to disclose the name and address of any contributor to the organization (could also be classified as a con, depending on your org’s position on this issue and on disclosure/transparency);
- Cons: donations are NOT tax-deductible; “social welfare” is not a well-defined term, and so any core mission must be clearly defined for credibility; new social welfare groups pop up often, and many are not legitimate for their stated purposes, which can make fundraising and a media strategy more difficult at first.
- 501(c)(3) charitable organization
Step 3: Where, When, and How to launch political and/or issue-oriented ads
Facebook is the hub for most political advertising, especially issue-oriented ads. Once your page is set up and Facebook has verified your nonprofit status (either charitable or social welfare, c3 or c4), you can boost posts to a targeted audience; develop and manage ads through Facebook’s Ad Center; and dive into the analytics of your advertising. Facebook also has an extensive database of political ads that can be explored for creative inspiration or to see what other groups are saying and how they package their ads.
Instagram is a useful tool to illustrate your mission, organize people, and drive engagement; while Instagram has limited fundraising tools, ads on Instagram can in some cases be successful and help drive traffic to your website or whatever platform you are using to collect donations. Twitter is the same way, although it is much easier to include links directly on tweets/posts on Twitter than it is on Instagram. Politically savvy audiences are more responsive to issue advertising and viewing environmental problems as a political (not necessarily partisan) issue on Twitter than on Instagram.
Other platforms like TikTok or Snapchat may be useful for engagement and youth participation in understanding your group’s issue/mission, but are untested in terms of fundraising capabilities. They may also be useful for organizing; most nonprofits stick with using Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter in general so you could in fact be a trailblazer if your group can strategically utilize social media platforms like TikTok, Snapchat, and others.
(*Note on TikTok: there has been an uptick of interest and creative use of TikTok videos to promote political messages. The conventional wisdom of who uses such newer platforms and how is likely wrong, and the consensus could be shifting. For example, if you know of some audio that is relevant to your environmental issue, like say someone speaking at a press conference or legislative meeting, you might think “we can creatively and interestingly spread the message about this event with a TikTok video.” If you have the time, bandwidth, and creative approach to pull this off, by all means do it.)
The decision of where to run your ads, that is in either print or digital sources, and on what platforms or publications, depends largely on the objectives you set for your advertising. Other factors that would influence such decisions include demographics—the age, race/ethnicity, or occupation of your intended audience—cost, and the design of your ad (for instance, does it have a lot of color? Is it interactive? Is it mostly text or graphic?).
Some sources of advertising:
- Targeted display ads and videos on Facebook
- Display ads through Google
- Video ads on YouTube
- Taking an ad out in a print newspaper
- Display ads on print media websites
Issue-oriented ads can be timed to best benefit your organization’s internal goals, since issues advertising done by charitable nonprofits is by definition not electoral advocacy.
For social welfare organizations, issues ads as well as any political advertising should probably be attuned to the campaign election cycle.