top of page
  • Pat Libby

What 501(c)(3) Nonprofits CAN DO During an ELECTION Year

I have deep respect for nonprofit leaders. They are by and large passionate people who care deeply about the causes they’re working to advance. Nonprofit leaders are also pretty smart on the whole.

Except when it comes to knowing how their organizations can become civically engaged. 


I’m going to tell you about three simple things that YOUR CALIFORNIA* nonprofit – and yes, I’m talking about 501(c)(3) organizations – can legally do during an election year!

1. Register people to vote

Many nonprofit organizations interact with the public regularly. Environmental groups sponsor nature hikes, beach and forest clean-ups, birding events, etc. Hospitals and clinics of all types see a steady stream of patients. Arts organizations entertain all kinds of folks. Social service agencies across the board interact with voting-age people of all types. Affordable housing developers have long lists of people who live in their properties or are hoping to. There is no reason that any of these organizations can’t provide access to voter registration – either through website links or by providing hard copy forms. 

Finding out what people need to do to register to vote in your community – and what you can do as a nonprofit – is as easy as going to Nonprofit Vote.

One of the things you’ll learn by visiting the Nonprofit Vote website is that your nonprofit will need to register with the Secretary of State, Elections Division if you are requesting more than 50 voter registration cards. You‘ll need to do something similar on the county level. There are also special rules to follow if you pay staff specifically to help folks register.     

One more important thing to remember: You can NEVER ask someone to register to vote for a particular candidate! Voter registration activities MUST BE NON-PARTISAN. To ensure that, the Federal Elections Commission requires posting a sign or giving written notice to people you are registering that says: “These voter registration services are available without regard to the voter’s political preference. Information and other assistance regarding registering or voting, including transportation and other services offered, shall not be withheld or refused based on the support for or opposition to particular candidates or a particular party.”

2. Organize rides to the polls

Even though all registered voters in California receive a ballot that they can either mail or drop off at a ballot box, some people enjoy the feeling of voting in person, or, they may believe it’s a safer way to vote. If so, your nonprofit can organize rides to the polls! It’s easy to find eager beaver volunteers who will want to help out.

The one thing you can’t say though is: “Let’s all hop on a bus and vote for Pat Libby,” because

a) I’m not running for office and

b) your nonprofit can’t endorse or oppose any candidate for office.

3. Give the candidates a tour of your organization

It is likely your nonprofit works in an area where there is real competition for a local, state, or federal office (or possibly, all of the above). Your job is to introduce each of the candidates to your organization while they are running for office. That way whoever is elected will have a good understanding of what you’re all about when you go to them with “an ask” after they’re elected. 

Giving candidates a tour of your programs, inviting them to an event, or simply sitting down and telling them about your work will go a long way toward building a good working relationship with them. And, if one of the people who is running for office is someone who you already have a good relationship with, there is no harm in taking the time to remind them about all of the wonderful things your nonprofit does. 

Just remember: legally you must invite each of the candidates to whatever event/activity you are hosting (although, if you prefer, you can host them at separate events). 

If you read through that short list of things and thought “We’re already there dude, what else can we do?” You can take a deeper dive into the election year pool by holding a candidate debate, sending out surveys to candidates and publishing the results on your website, and working on ballot measures. BUT, before you engage in any of those activities, be sure you know your legal rights as a nonprofit.  

Nonprofits that want to do more are encouraged to file a form called the 501 (h) election which takes less than 1 minute to fill out and allows your nonprofit to spend up to 20% of its exempt purpose expenditures on lobbying! Find out more by assigning someone on your staff or board to check out these FREE resources:

We live in a time when people around the world are sacrificing their lives for democracy. At home, 62 percent of Americans believe democracy is at risk in our next Presidential election. I’m one of them.

Photo of Alexei Navalny by Mitya Aleshkovsky

Let’s all do our part to shine a light.



*If you are a loyal blog reader who doesn’t live in California, go to Nonprofit Vote to find out what you can do in your community.


Pat Libby is a change management consultant working principally with nonprofit corporations. She is author of The Empowered Citizens Guide: 10 Steps to Passing a Law that Matters to You, Oxford University Press, The Lobbying Strategy Handbook, second edition, Oxford University Press, and Cases in Nonprofit Management, SAGE. She has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.

Want these blog posts sent your inbox? Sign up for Pat Libby's newsletter. Get in touch with questions or to get more information!



Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page