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Nonprofit organizations and political endorsements should remain separate

Mar 01, 2017 • by Kevin Murphy, President, Berks County Community Foundation
Berks County Community Foundation

Berks County Community Foundation, along with hundreds of our partners in the nonprofit sector, is working every day to improve the quality of life in Berks County. From improving access to health care to creating better jobs, the local nonprofit sector is the backbone of our community. Much of that work is done by organizations who are exempt under Section 501 (c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. 

A defining characteristic of our sector is its lack of participation in political campaigns. Those of us who work at the Community Foundation and our grantees are barred by law from using charitable resources to support candidates for office. We take those rules very seriously. While we have funded voter education efforts and opportunities to discuss controversial issues (through our “Consider It” series), we are scrupulously nonpartisan.

The prohibition against our involvement in those campaigns is enshrined in the “Johnson Amendment,” which was adopted in 1954 as part of the revenue code. 

Amidst the current debate in Washington about the future of the tax code, there are many voices who seek to repeal the Johnson Amendment. At the National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump promised to “totally destroy” the amendment.

What a terrible idea.   

The work of our region’s charitable organizations would be greatly threatened by a material change in the Johnson Amendment rules. Suddenly, organizations dedicated to eliminating homelessness would find themselves pressured to contribute to political campaigns or endorse candidates. Charitable contributions meant to feed hungry children could be diverted to advertising in local school board races or for polling in some state senate race.   

Our nonprofit partners have plenty on their hands without wading into political campaigns.   We, and they, need to be seen as independent from the divisive political discourse of our current environment. All of us need to preserve the ability to work with government officials in an atmosphere of trust regardless of their party affiliation.

Our system of nonprofit organizations that support our neediest citizens has been the envy of the world since de Tocqueville first wrote about it. We should not undermine that system by inserting it into electoral politics.

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