Amid the upcoming election and current economic crisis, it looks like some US nonprofit bloggers and Twitterers are letting their own personal political views come to the fore. And that has irked some of their readers.
Jeff Trexler at unCivilSociety.org points out that "Section 501(c)(3) prohibits charities from intervening in political campaigns, either for or against a candidate".
However, "if you pay careful attention to charitable Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, message boards and other social media, you can find any number of accounts associated with 501(c)(3) managers also being used to tout Obama, slam Palin, raise funds for a political party and so forth".
While he has no problems with charity staff being actively engaged in politics, he recommends that nonprofit staff scrupulously avoid making party political comments on any website, blog, Twitter feed, Facebook page etc that is in any way an official charity communication.
He adds: "Particularly if you're a charity manager (i.e., officer or board member), you should maintain a firewall between accounts that promote your charity and those in which you advocate for your personal political preference".
Now, of course, sometimes this line between personal and official charity can be hard to define. What if you have a personal Facebook account that you use primarily to promote and discuss the issues that your charity employer engages with? To some extent, it doesn't matter: it is what the IRS and its lawyers conclude, should the issue come to prosecution.
In England and Wales, charities have the Charity
Commission's 'Speaking Out: Guidance on Campaigning and Political Activity' to help them. Although updated in March 2008 it makes no mention of Facebook, social networks, Twitter, and other sites that can blur the personal and the professional. But the guidance can still be assumed to apply to them.
What could UK charities do? First, be aware of the issue and the risk it presents. Second, consider adding guidance on the issue to the terms and conditions of employment that should already cover elements of using digital media.
To put the issues in context though, there is debate about just what US nonprofits can do. There is the rather extreme advice from nonprofitrisk about even linking to a political candidate's website: "Charities that have links from their web sites to other sites need to be vigilant in scanning those links to make sure that the content on the linked site does not place the nonprofit at risk by expressing support or opposition to a particular candidate". (How can anyone achieve that?)
At the other end of the spectrum, Michael Gilbert from Nonprofit Online News encourages nonprofits to study the Alliance for Justice's "excellent cheat sheet on Permissible Nonpartisan 501(c)(3) and Partisan Campaign Contact on Voter Engagement/Protection Efforts". He adds "most organisations don't know just how much they can do" and encourages nonprofit staff to "find a way to enroll your organization at this critical juncture in the history of American civil society".