501(c)(3) Electioneering Rules: Candidate Appearances & Debates

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While 501(c)(3) organizations are prohibited from intervening in elections, they are permitted to engage in certain nonpartisan election-related activities if they structure such activities appropriately, which we’ll address in this next post in the series.  This includes sponsoring candidate debates and forums and inviting candidates to speak at organizational events.  However, 501(c)(3) organizations must be careful when hosting such events that they do not serve to favor or oppose any particular candidate or political party.

Fortunately, the IRS has provided some guidance in Revenue Ruling 2007-41 regarding how 501(c)(3) organizations may arrange for candidate appearances without jeopardizing their exempt status.  However, keep in mind that whether such events ultimately constitute impermissible campaign intervention will depend on all of the facts and circumstances, including:

  • “Whether the organization provides an equal opportunity to participate to political candidates seeking the same office;”
  • “Whether the organization indicates any support for or opposition to the candidate (including candidate introductions and communications concerning the candidate’s attendance);” and
  • “Whether any political fundraising occurs.”

If a 501(c)(3) organization hosts candidates for a political office at separate events, whether those candidates were given an equal opportunity to participate will depend on the comparative nature of the events.  For example, it would likely constitute impermissible campaign intervention for an organization to invite one candidate for a particular office to speak at its highly-publicized and well-attended annual gala while inviting her opponent to speak at an unpublicized and sparsely attended meeting.  Even if the organization presented each candidate in a neutral way, the disparate nature of the events would likely be viewed as expressing a preference for, and providing a benefit to, a particular candidate.

In Revenue Ruling 2007-41, the IRS also provided guidance on when a 501(c)(3) organization may be able to host a candidate debate or forum for the purpose of educating the public without running afoul of Section 501(c)(3).  The facts and circumstances the IRS has identified as relevant to determining whether a forum or debate involving candidates constitutes political campaign intervention include:

  • “Whether questions for the candidates are prepared and presented by an independent nonpartisan panel,”
  • “Whether the topics discussed by the candidates cover a broad range of issues that the candidates would address if elected to the office sought and are of interest to the public,”
  • “Whether each candidate is given an equal opportunity to present his or her view on each of the issues discussed,”
  • “Whether the candidates are asked to agree or disagree with positions, agendas, platforms or statements of the organization,” and
  • “Whether a moderator comments on the questions or otherwise implies approval or disapproval of the candidates.”

In addition, the organization should be careful to publicize any such event broadly and to avoid intentionally filling the audience with individuals that favor or oppose a particular participating candidate.  It should also select a neutral moderator who is aware of the campaign intervention prohibition and who will be able to treat the candidates fairly.  Finally, the organization should announce a disclaimer at the event that the views shared by the candidates are not those of the host organization and should avoid any post-event publications that contain ratings or evaluations of the candidates’ performances.

For more information, see Alliance for Justice’s advocacy resource, Rules of the Game: A Guide to Election-Related Activities for 501(c)(3) Organizations.