When c(3)s Can Take a Political Stance

Dear Kim,

Can you settle an argument? Our public library is supported in part by income from property tax and this year voters will be asked for a very modest increase in that tax to upgrade some library services. I am the Artistic Director for our local theater and we use the library a lot. We use their community room for all our board meetings. We have very little space in our theater and so I use the library as my writing office. (We are right across the street). I want our board of directors to encourage people to vote yes on this increase, but our Board Chair and Executive Director say we are not allowed to take any political positions or we could lose our tax exempt status. What is true?

“When in doubt, go to the library.” (JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets)

~Go to

Dear Go to—

I am so pleased to receive your question, not because of the question, which is easy to answer and I will momentarily, but because you are showing the kind of solidarity and working across organizational lines that must become more common if we are to have any hope of creating the kind of communities we want.

The short answer to your question is that you are right. Nonprofits are allowed to take positions on ballot initiatives and to publicize your positions. For more on this, you can contact Bolder Advocacy, which is a project of the Alliance for Justice. Since you are a theater person, you will probably enjoy this video and may want to show it, or part of it, to your board.

The short way to understand what 501(c)3s are allowed and not allowed to do is simple: if it has a face, you can’t do anything. In other words, you can’t oppose or endorse candidates or get involved in electoral campaigns. But otherwise, your organization can take a position without risking anything.

And I hope you do persuade your board and ED to support this increase. The following is one of my favorite quotes about libraries:

“I received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement…. Now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that the door is closing and that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.” 

― Isaac AsimovI. Asimov: A Memoir

~Kim Klein