The New York nonprofit sector supports individuals and communities by providing needed resources, including affordable housing, child care, youth development, job availability, healthcare services, access to well-performing schools. It also enhances and enriches our society through providing exposure to the arts and culture. Although these nonprofits may be addressing different needs, one critical commonality is that charitable nonprofits are nonpartisan organizations. This nonpartisanship is a result of more than 60 years of law known as the Johnson Amendment that prohibits charitable 501(c)(3) nonprofits from participating in political campaigns or candidacies.
Nonprofits are not Republican organizations, or Democrat organizations – they are community organizations. But now, nonprofit nonpartisanship is under threat.
Nonpartisanship in the nonprofit sector is a key element of the sector’s success. As a society, we invest in these institutions precisely because they are focused not on politics but on the good of the community. Nonpartisanship allows nonprofits to remain neutral in political contests and offer their services and expertise to anyone in need. Last month, bills were introduced in the U.S. Congress that would change this important protection and allow nonprofit organizations and churches to endorse candidates. Were these bills to pass, they would change the nonprofit sector from one that supports communities regardless of political affiliation to political machines. Imagine only being able to get government funding if you endorsed a winning candidate, instead of having a winning strategy to end hunger. This would have a devastating impact on our communities throughout the state.
The Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York (NPCC) is a nonprofit organization that represents nearly 1,500 nonprofits throughout the state. We know through our day-to-day work with these groups that these bills are bad for their missions and their communities. And we’re not the only ones. Thousands of nonprofits signed a Community Letter in Support of Nonpartisanship. Nearly 100 religious leaders urged Congress not to repeal these protections and an Independent Sector poll found 72 percent of voters want to keep current nonpartisan protections for nonprofits.
Charitable nonprofits play a specific role in our society: to create stronger communities, to keep us healthy, to educate us, to share art and culture. They also contribute, as they should, to the public dialogue about what our society and communities need. Charitable nonprofits can advocate for their issues and provide necessary data or information that sheds light on different sides of an issue. There is no law that prohibits charitable nonprofits from speaking about their expertise. Indeed, our public conversations are richer for the participation of the nonprofit sector. But advocacy and partisanship are two fundamentally different things. Introducing partisanship within the sector will forever alter the role of nonprofits in public discourse and in our communities.
On May 4, two subcommittees of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold hearings on this issue. NPCC has already sent a letter to Representative Carolyn Maloney, the New York representative to the Government Operations Subcommittee, urging her to reject efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment.
We’ll continue to fight to keep charitable nonprofits nonpartisan. The only individuals who will benefit from a repeal of the Johnson Amendment are politicians themselves – and the charitable nonprofit sector works for the public, not for politicians.
Sharon Stapel is president of the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York.