Situation

Denali Christian College (DCC), a private college under I.R.C. section 501(c)(3), located in Ketchikan, AK, prepares and finances a full-page newspaper advertisement that is published in several large circulation newspapers in Alaska shortly before an election in which Senator Kodiak is a candidate for nomination in a party primary. Senator Kodiak represents Alaska in the United States Senate. The advertisement states that S. 24, a pending bill in the United States Senate, would provide additional opportunities for Alaska residents to attend college, but Senator Kodiak has opposed similar measures in the past. The advertisement ends with the statement “Call or write Senator Kodiak to tell him to vote for S. 24.” Educational issues have not been raised as an issue distinguishing Senator Kodiak from any opponent. S. 24 is scheduled for a vote in the United States Senate before the election, soon after the date that the advertisement is published in the newspapers.  DCC has not violated the political campaign intervention prohibition of the IRS in I.R.C. section 501(c)(3).

Rules

From Revenue Ruling 2007-41:

Even though the advertisement appears shortly before the election and identifies Senator Kodiak’s position on the issue as contrary to DCC’s position, Denali Christian College has not violated the political campaign intervention prohibition because the advertisement does not mention the election or the candidacy of Senator Kodiak, education issues have not been raised as distinguishing Senator Kodiak from any opponent, and the timing of the advertisement and the identification of Senator Kodiak are directly related to the specifically identified legislation Denali Christian College is supporting and appears immediately before the United States Senate is scheduled to vote on that particular legislation. The candidate identified, Senator Kodiak, is an officeholder who is in a position to vote on the legislation.

Issue Advocacy vs. Political Campaign Intervention

Section 501(c)(3) organizations may take positions on public policy issues, including issues that divide candidates in an election for public office. However, section 501(c)(3) organizations must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention. Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate. A statement can identify a candidate not only by stating the candidate’s name but also by other means such as showing a picture of the candidate, referring to political party affiliations, or other distinctive features of a candidate’s platform or biography. All the facts and circumstances need to be considered to determine if the advocacy is political campaign intervention.

Key factors in determining whether a communication results in political campaign intervention include the following:

  1. Whether the statement identifies one or more candidates for a given public office;
  2. Whether the statement expresses approval or disapproval for one or more candidates’ positions and/or actions;
  3. Whether the statement is delivered close in time to the election;
  4. Whether the statement makes reference to voting or an election;
  5. Whether the issue addressed in the communication has been raised as an issue distinguishing candidates for a given office;
  6. Whether the communication is part of an ongoing series of communications by the organization on the same issue that are made independent of the timing of any election; and
  7. Whether the timing of the communication and identification of the candidate are related to a non-electoral event such as a scheduled vote on specific legislation by an officeholder who also happens to be a candidate for public office.

A communication is particularly at risk of political campaign intervention when it makes reference to candidates or voting in a specific upcoming election. Nevertheless, the communication must still be considered in context before arriving at any conclusions.

Note: The communication would generally be deemed “grassroots lobbying”.

From Form 990 Instructions Glossary:

Lobbying activities.  All activities intended to influence foreign, national, state, or local legislation. Such activities include direct lobbying (attempting to influence the legislators) and grassroots lobbying (attempting to influence legislation by influencing the general public).

Bottom Line

Too many Christian Colleges do not understand the whole “political” activities arena. Issue advocacy might be something you should be engaging in. There may also be situations where lobbying would be advantageous. However, too often, a lack of understanding with regard to the political rules can cause fear and trembling. On top of that, we are expecting changes to some of the “political” rules this summer. It would be a great idea for all of us to have seek more understanding in this arena.

Specific questions? Email Dave Moja

The information provided herein presents general information and should not be relied on as accounting, tax, or legal advice when analyzing and resolving a specific tax issue. If you have specific questions regarding a particular fact situation, please consult with competent accounting, tax, and/or legal counsel about the facts and laws that apply.