As not-for-profit professionals, we’re told that we shouldn’t get political. In the United States’ tax code, the Johnson Amendment prohibits all 501(c)(3) from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Many believe that this amendment protects not-for-profit organizations (NPOs). I’m probably one of the few NPO professionals who believe that this isn’t the case.
Life Before the Johnson Amendment
Prior to the introduction of the Johnson Amendment in 1954, the NPO community was not apolitical. Our sector has always been all about righting injustices and addressing inequality in society. NPOs of the past understood that to truly make a positive impact and long-lasting change, legal reforms must happen. This meant that many NPOs organized and advocated for the necessary reforms that were needed. Notable examples include: the abolition of slavery, voting rights, labor laws, and compulsory childhood education (just to name a few).
Why Was It Proposed?
You would be sadly mistaken if you think that the Johnson Amendment was proposed to keep politics out of the NPO world. It was proposed to keep us, the advocates for social justice, out of politics! Political leaders, going as far back as George Washington, feared that such organizations would grow in size and influence and would then gain in financial resources and finally in political power.
Fearful Our Power to Do Good
You can first see this “fear” when Congress restricted the political activities of NPOs through the Revenue Act in 1934. This federal statute abolished the tax deduction for certain previously allowed philanthropic contributions, specifically those going to organizations where a significant amount of their activities consisted in advocating for legal reform. Simply put, if the government felt that your organization was spending too much time being political, then you wouldn’t be able to benefit from deductibility of the contributions you received.
In 1954, then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson decided that an amendment was needed. He wanted to add 31 little words:
“ … and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
These little words stripped NPOs of the ability to fight for the legal reform needed to meet their missions and visions.
We’re Lying To Ourselves
In the NPO world, we’ve been lying to ourselves that this Amendment is good, that it protects us. Have we ever really asked why Johnson proposed this change? Hmmmmm?
It seems that in the primaries, a couple of wealthy donors used the tax-exempt organizations that they ran to support Johnson’s opponent. Even though Johnson won the primary, he went on to propose this amendment. Which leads me, along with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, to think that he wasn’t thrilled with the role these organizations played in his state politics.
Crisis in the U.S.
In the United States, we’re in a crisis. Our children, our future, are dying because of mass school shootings. Individuals of all ages are dying from medical conditions that could have been treated, if they had been discovered earlier. We are demeaning our educators, telling them how and what to teach, and telling them that if their students don’t perform, their pay will be docked.
Let’s Push for Legal Reform
For each of these horrendous problems, we have organizations and NPO professionals working tirelessly to address it. But our work isn’t going to fix the problems unless we can have legal reform. I think it’s time for the not-for-profit community to get back into politics. Our predecessors made great strides and now, it’s our time. We need to work on gun safety, healthcare, and education reform.
I really think it’s time to rethink our stance on the Johnson Amendment.
***Information for this post was obtained from the August 24, 2018 Stanford Social Innovation Review article on the Johnson Amendment***