Each presidential election year the IRS increases its vigilance over halting campaign activity by nonprofits. This presidential year has already proven to be more exciting than most on this front.
The New York Times recently reported that conflict has erupted as Democratic lawmakers call for the IRS to crack down on nonprofit political groups while conservative organizations counter that it is just a witch hunt.
Certain political support groups have been recognized by the IRS as “social welfare” organizations. According to the IRS, “the promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. However, a section 501(c)(4) social welfare organization may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity.”
As with many IRS definitions, the standard for what constitutes “primary” is unclear. Regardless, many believe that 501(c)(4) status, which provides groups with exemption from federal taxes, is being abused.
In light of this potential abuse, the IRS recently sent lengthy questionnaires concerning political positions and activities to several Tea Party organizations applying for recognition as social welfare groups. But Senate Democrats are not satisfied. They are calling for legislation to require that these groups disclose their primary donors and provide disclaimers to political ads identifying the main funders.
Conservatives won’t go down without a fight. Many of the Tea Party groups that received questionnaires from the IRS are now claiming harassment.
Remember that while 501(c)(4) organization may engage in some political activity, 501(c)(3) organizations may not engage in any political activity. Especially in the case of churches, the IRS is watching more closely than ever for 501(c)(3) organizations to break this rule. Watch for a post next week about how to deal with political activity by nonprofit employees.
We expect more IRS activity and court involvement in the upcoming months. Readers of this blog will be kept apprised of the action.