All organizations that are recognized as tax-exempt charitable organizations under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (the “Code”) are prohibited from participating or intervening in a political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. Because this prohibition applies to all tax-exempt charities, it applies to the Foundation as well as the vast majority of our grantees.
The prohibition is absolute. Even insubstantial political campaign activities violate this prohibition. The prohibition is quite broad—it not only forbids endorsements and campaign contributions, it also requires that the Foundation refrain from engaging in any activity that indicates any preference for one candidate or political party over another. Such a preference can be expressed without naming a candidate or their party.
If you speak to a reporter or other external audience, participate in a forum, or write any commentary as a representative of the Foundation, you must not endorse, criticize, or evaluate the candidacy of anyone seeking elected office at any level of government—federal, state, or local—and must also take care to avoid expressing views that reasonably could be interpreted as endorsing or opposing a specific candidate or political party.
Given the likely intensity of the upcoming elections, it is quite possible that Foundation staff and/or our grantees may be approached by political candidates for assistance. Because of the very broad prohibition on political campaign activity, no Foundation staff member, in their capacity as a Foundation employee, should provide any assistance to a political candidate, political party, or PAC. If you receive a request for assistance, contact the Law department for guidance prior to responding. We will treat all requests for information from candidates or their staffs the same. Refer them to materials on our website or which are otherwise publicly available. Additionally, if we send materials to one candidate, we must send the same materials to all candidates for that office.
It is essential that the Foundation avoid even a perception that it is conducting or supporting political activity. The guidelines below will help us achieve our goal of maintaining the strong, positive momentum of our work and that of our grantees without being thwarted or diverted by getting caught up in a partisan fight.
Consider whether internal documents and activities are compliant. It is not just what RWJF states publicly that matters; we need to ensure that all internal communications, including what we email to our colleagues and post on Chatter and Salesforce, reflect the Foundation’s commitment to compliance with these rules.
Yes, we may still reflect views on public policy issues, even those that divide the candidates, but caution is needed.
Even if a statement about a public policy issue does not expressly mention the election, voting, or any candidate, it may still be viewed as violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if the message appears to favor or oppose any particular candidate. All facts and circumstances need to be considered to determine if the views on public policy (sometimes known as issue advocacy) constitute prohibited political campaign intervention.
Key factors include:
Please consult with the Law department before making a determination that a communication (e.g., statement, publication, blog) on a prominent public policy issue during an election season is appropriate for the Foundation.
Foundation grantees are prohibited under the terms of their grant agreements from engaging in any political campaign activities with Foundation funds. Occasionally, grantees may request our advice on whether proposed activities are prohibited. As a general rule, the Foundation does not give legal advice to grantees; however, if a grantee’s question relates to the possible use of Foundation grant funds for what might be considered political campaign activity, please request assistance from the Law department.
You may, of course, engage in political campaign activity on your own time, using your own resources. But you MUST NOT use Foundation resources in any way and you MUST make it clear that your actions and statements are your own, not the Foundation’s.This means that you CANNOT, in any circumstances:
In general, voter education activities focused on educating voters about the candidates must include all the candidates for a particular office and cover a very broad spectrum of public policy issues to avoid violating the prohibition on campaign intervention. The Foundation could not, for example, limit its focus to health-related issues that relate directly to our programmatic goals.
As a result of the prohibitions against political campaign intervention and lobbying activity, the Foundation does not generally fund or conduct the following activities:
Private foundations are also restricted in what voter registration activities they can support. (These restrictions do not apply to public charities.) This means that the Foundation does not generally support:
Please consult with the Foundation before engaging in these activities, or requesting any grants to support such activities.
Particularly in the height of an election season, it is hard to avoid conversations about candidates for public office, political parties, and their platforms. But we have an obligation to not support or oppose federal, state, or local candidates, political parties, and their platforms at Foundation-sponsored events and activities.
While the Law department is always here to help, each of us has an obligation to support the Foundation’s compliance with these rules. Here’s how you can and should get the conversation back on track:
If RWJF is hosting or providing the funding for a public meeting where you can anticipate that speakers, panelists, and/or audience participants may make natural connections to political campaigns and parties, make sure the event host or moderator starts by explaining the ground rules.
For example, “The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is hosting this educational, nonpartisan event to contribute to our efforts to build a Culture of Health across America. This event is not intended to be a forum to comment on the views of any political party, candidate, or party platform. Our focus today is to….”
If the topic of any candidate for elected office is introduced by any, speak up as soon as possible to steer the conversation back to the intended topic.
If needed, you could say something like, “It’s hard not to talk about what is happening in politics right now, but because the Foundation rules apply right now, we need to refrain from any discussions of candidates. Let’s turn back to our discussion of….”
It is possible that attendees at some events are running for re-election. You should not mention or discuss the participant’s candidacy. No individual should ever be participating in an RWJF-funded event in their capacity as a candidate. In the event that a candidate’s presence is noted, you can say, “Person X has joined us today because of their position as X, and contributes in that capacity. No one was invited today because of their candidacy, and we cannot discuss anybody’s candidacy at this Foundation-funded event.”
These Foundation training and resource materials as well as third-party training materials are provided for grantees and potential grantees for general informational purposes only. They do not represent legal advice as to any particular set of facts, nor do they represent any undertaking to keep recipients advised of any relevant legal developments. Please consult appropriate professional legal and financial advisers as you deem necessary. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shall not be held responsible for any claims or losses that may arise from any errors or omissions in these materials.