What nonprofits can and cannot do during election season

Aug 17, 2022 | Citizen Advocacy, Local Groups

November 8 is Election Day. It’s a good time for local groups to review what they can and cannot do to be a voice for clean water in Wisconsin. Advocacy for clean water comes in many forms: it’s not just lobbying and it can be done in a nonpartisan way. 

This FAQ is geared for community groups and nonprofit organizations to know what activities are safe to do during election season.

Isn’t advocacy the same thing as lobbying?

Advocacy may include lobbying, but it’s more than lobbying. Lobbying focuses on legislation and talking with legislators. It has its own set of rules. If your organization shies away from advocacy, know there are many kinds of advocacy that are both legal and essential for Wisconsinites to be voices for clean water protections. 

What are nonprofit groups allowed to do during election season?

You can educate the public about water protection issues in a nonpartisan way. You can also encourage citizens to register and vote in elections. This democracy work helps provide the tools, information, and support needed for voters to confidently participate in voting. 

You can

  • encourage your members to register and make a plan to vote
  • participate in a nonpartisan rally to encourage voter registration
  • send an email to your members to ask them to vote early or absentee
  • host a Get Out The Vote drive
  • start a petition drive on a specific issue or problem
  • table at a college campus with educational information

Encouraging people to vote does not have to be divisive or partisan. These are safe activities for any 501(c)3 organization as long as they do not favor one party or candidate over another. 

Whether you are working on a local issue, or a statewide issue, please take up the issue of democracy work with your board and your membership for discussion as we head into a very active election season. It can be very meaningful, positive, and empowering advocacy work, but it should be thought of as part of your organization’s overall strategy to address your central mission.

What are we not allowed to do around elections?

Electioneering is the kind of campaigning where you try to influence the result of an election in favor of a particular candidate or political party. Telling your supporters who to vote for or against, or what party they should vote for or against, is not allowed for 501(c)3 nonprofit groups. 

While it is legal to do these things “as an individual,” if you belong to a 501(c)3 it must be clear that anything you do during an election is being done solely on your own behalf and in no way are you representing the non-profit.

How does the IRS define what nonprofits can and cannot do?

“Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.  Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”

What about referendum questions?

Referendum questions or ballot measures are a little different because instead of lobbying an elected official to vote a certain way, you’re asking voters to vote a certain way. The good news is that nonprofits CAN do grassroots lobbying work. 

There are two ways your nonprofit can do grassroots lobbying:

Insubstantial Parts Test: the IRS allows organizations to spend three to five percent of their annual budget on lobbying expenses. The IRS will ask you about lobbying details and expenses, which involves careful tracking and budgeting. 

501(h): this is a better way for nonprofits to do any kind of lobbying advocacy. River Alliance recommends that groups file a 990 with a 501(h) election as a best practice. It’s a simple and free process and you can get help from your group’s accountant. The IRS applies a set formula using your organization’s annual budget to provide you a fixed, annual “not to exceed” amount for your lobbying expenses (which does not include activities of volunteers) making it VERY clear cut and defined. With a 501(h) on file, the IRS normally allows up to twenty percent of your organization’s annual budget, versus only 3% to 5% allowed via the Insubstantial Parts Test. 


River Alliance of Wisconsin wants local groups to do all they can to be a voice for clean water and a healthy democracy. For help on how to legally encourage voter participation during election season or how to encourage voters to vote YES on the Clean Water Now referendum questions, contact Water Advocates Organizer Johnson Bridgwater at: (608) 257-2424, ext. 115; or email [email protected]  

– Johnson Bridgwater, Water Advocates Organizer


This message is made possible by generous donors who believe people have the power to protect and restore water. Become a member of River Alliance of Wisconsin today.