Friday, March 31, 2017

The Johnson Amendment: Religion, Politics & Nonprofits

I just signed a community letter from the National Council of Nonprofits opposing the repeal of the Johnson Amendment. And I'd like to urge you to do so as well.

This is an issue that hasn't risen to the top of the tweet and media chart. I'm guessing most of you don't even know what the Johnson Amendment is. But it's vitally important to the health of the nonprofit sector and to our preservation of the line between church and state.

Here's a basic summary: the Johnson Amendment states that in exchange for the privilege of tax-exempt status (along with the ability to receive tax-deductible contributions), 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations including religious congregations and foundations cannot participate in "any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office." This amendment was proposed by Senator Lyndon Johnson in 1954, apparently to squelch groups in his home state that opposed him.

President Trump has emphatically stated that he wants to "get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution." He also said this could be his "greatest contribution to Christianity."

Public support has come from folks in the religious community who want their ordained religious leaders to be able to endorse partisan political candidates from the pulpit. Their rationale is that this is a First Amendment right.

But - the federal tax code already allows these organizations and their leaders to engage in public discourse. Nonpartisan voter education activities, church-organized voter registration drives, issue guides for voters, and sermons about social and political issues are all allowed. Religious leaders have shaped public debate since our nation's founding using these tools, advocating from both left and right (from civil rights to abortion). What the amendment does prohibit is campaign intervention - endorsing or opposing candidates for public office, publishing and distributing statements for or against them, and using tax-deductible resources to support partisan political activities.

So is this about free speech? Nope. The real objective is to allow wealthy donors like the Koch brothers to make tax-exempt contributions for partisan political purposes - and remain completely anonymous. Religious and nonprofit organizations would become central in the world of money and politics. This would be contrary to all the values I hold dear about the nonprofit sector and about American democracy.

I urge you to support the integrity of the nonprofit sector by signing this letter at And let your Congressional representatives know where you stand; despite Trump's promise to destroy the Johnson Amendment, he can't actually do it on his own - it's a law, and only Congress can repeal it. The nonprofit community needs to be a place where we can work together in a nonpartisan way to make this world a better place.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Nonprofits: Why We Do What We Do

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature and value of nonprofit work, especially in our current chaotic national climate.

It’s good to remember right now what a nonprofit actually is: a tax-exempt organization that serves the public interest, with a defined purpose that is charitable, educational, scientific, religious or literary. It’s about doing meaningful work that makes a difference in people’s lives.

Here’s what nonprofits can do:
  • Provide essential services and support locally or nationally for people of all ages, incomes, and backgrounds
  • Exercise prudent fiscal management, using budget surpluses to improve and expand your services
  • Provide education about and advocate for legislation and causes that are consonant with your mission – this is not only legal but some of our country's most important social gains have been won through nonprofit policy work including Mothers Against Drunk Driving (blood alcohol limits), the ACLU (discriminatory hiring practices) and Communities for a Better Environment (air quality standards)
Here’s what a nonprofit legally cannot do:
  • Operate for the benefit of private interests or individuals
  • Participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates
  • Use substantial amounts of your resources on lobbying (though the IRS is quite vague about what that actually means)
Here are a few things you should do:
  • Go back and read your mission – this is the cornerstone of your work, and I’m always amazed how many nonprofit volunteers and staff members have no idea what it is
  • Continue building, assessing, and strengthening your programs and your outreach in support of your core mission
  • Establish a policy that sets guidelines to determine if, how, why, and when you would choose to advocate publicly 
  • Speak out to your community, to your representatives, and to your local media outlets on issues that affect your constituents and connect to your mission
I founded a small town community center in 1971, back in that period of tremendous naïve idealism and hope and rebellion against the norm. I wanted to create community through music and dance; I wanted to bring people of all ages and backgrounds together. I wanted to do my part in this small microcosm to make the world a better place.

The bottom line: we all do this work because we want to make the world a better place (we certainly don’t do it for the money or the perks). I’m grateful for all the years I have spent in the nonprofit world. And I’m grateful for all the many nonprofits out there that are fighting the good fight right now.