WASHINGTON, D.C., November 27, 2013 – Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron issued the following statement in response to proposed guidance from the Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service concerning 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations.

In its attempt to define what kinds of activity are “political” and therefore cannot be counted toward a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization’s social welfare purpose, Treasury and the IRS drew a very deep and troubling line in the sand.  Though the new definitions attempt to clarify existing rules, they also create a danger to citizen participation in our democracy.

If implemented, there would be no such thing as a nonpartisan election activity conducted by a 501(c)(4); it would all be considered “political.”   By expanding the definition of what activities are political, the rules would drastically reduce the ability of (c)(4)s to engage in nonpartisan get-out-the-vote drives, candidate questionnaires, and voter registration drives.  These activities have been critical to the ability of nonprofits to influence the public policy debate on a wealth of issues.

Through our Bolder Advocacy initiative, Alliance for Justice provides technical assistance on legal rules to 501(c)(4) organizations of all sizes around the country and with a variety of missions.

The 501(c)(4) organizations we work with do not engage in political work as their ultimate goal. They see political work as a means to an end—a cleaner environment, laws that protect all Americans, greater reproductive rights. They conduct election activities like holding candidate forums and producing voter guides not to help individual candidates, but to help voters make informed decisions based on issues they care about.

These regulations will not run 501(c)(4)s out of politics.  Rather, the big players will hire lawyers and accountants to help them avoid the rules. Small players can’t afford this kind of assistance.  As a result, much smaller groups may well be frozen out of legitimate citizen engagement.  Creating an entirely distinct political organization to promote their policy agendas – new clean water laws or “no smoking” ordinances, for example — would be too costly and burdensome.

The attention paid to the few 501(c)(4)s that may be abusing their status obscures the law-abiding and legitimate work of the 110,000 or so (c)(4)s that represent millions of members and activists across the United States – like Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Sierra Club, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and other groups engaged in issue advocacy.

While the IRS and Treasury achieved their stated goal of creating clear and definitive definitions, they erred by quashing democratic participation–the heart of what so many social welfare organizations do.

We look forward to participating fully in the public comment period and representing the views of the 501(c)(4) organizations with whom we work  in that process.

Read much more about this proposal from AFJ’s Bolder Advocacy initiative

 Alliance for Justice is a national association of over 100 organizations, representing a broad array of groups committed to progressive values and the creation of an equitable, just, and free society. Through our justice programs, we lead the progressive community in the fight for a fair judiciary, and through our advocacy programs, we help nonprofits and foundations to realize their advocacy potential.  Learn more about Alliance for Justice at www.afj.org and www.bolderadvocacy.org