Political Activity of 501(c)(4) Tax Exempt Organizations

The Issue
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 has contributed to an unprecedented influx of money into the election process, raising questions about donor disclosure and political activities by 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organizations. Given that this is a highly politicized issue, Members of Congress and the public have begun to both call for, and question, increased scrutiny of 501(c)(4) organizations that appear to be engaged in partisan political activity.

Read Independent Sector's Principles on 501(c)(4) political activity
View the IS Board's three principles on political activity

Latest News
Fiscal Year 2016 omnibus appropriations bill includes limitations on 501(c)(4) regulations
As enacted into law in December 2015, the FY2016 spending bill included a provision preventing the IRS from issuing new regulations governing political activity by 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations for the rest of the current fiscal year—and thus realistically during the remainder of President Obama’s tenure. Nevertheless, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has said that his agency is not scrapping plans to draft and promulgate new regulations on the issue eventually, saying that "we'll continue to have a dialogue with the Congress about where we're going [and] we'll see what happens in October."

IS testifies at Senate hearing on IRS oversight of political activity
During a July 29, 2015 Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing focused on IRS oversight of exempt organizations with political activity, Independent Sector President and CEO Diana Aviv called for clearer rules surrounding such activities, including specific permissible levels and disclosure of donors whose contributions are intended to be used to influence the outcome of elections.

Treasury releases 501(c)(4) regulation proposal
In November 2013, the Treasury Department issued proposed regulations to provide guidance and more definitive rules on political activity for 501(c)(4) organizations. The proposal changes the definition of social welfare to exclude “candidate-related political activity,” which would encompass any communications expressly advocating for a political candidate, as well as any communications made within 60 days of a general election (or 30 days of a primary election) that identify a candidate or political party, among other stipulations. Also included in the new definition are voter registration drives and many civic engagement events. The IRS requested public comments on several elements of the proposed regulations, including on the meaning of “primarily” engaging in social welfare activities, how the standard should be measured, and whether these rules should also apply to 501(c)(5) and (c)(6) organizations. Read IS's formal comments | Learn more

IS Position and Action
Independent Sector supports the development of clearer guidelines for 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations that engage in political activities and has actively monitored and contributed to lawmakers' considerations of the topic. In December 2012, the IS Board of Directors adopted a set of guiding principles, used to evaluate any future regulations governing the political activities of 501(c)(4)s. 

Following the long-awaited release of proposed rulemaking for 501(c)(4)s engaged in politics in November 2013, the Board similarly acted to endorse three principles for policy decisions affecting exempt organizations' political activities.

  • Read the Washington Post op-ed co-authored by IS President and CEO Diana Aviv and Bauman Foundation Executive Director Gary Bass
  • Read the Chronicle of Philanthropy op-ed co-authored by IS President and CEO Diana Aviv and Bauman Foundation Executive Director Gary Bass
501(c)(4) organizations include two types of organizations: (a) social welfare organizations, defined by statute as civic leagues or organizations operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare; and (b) local associations of employees of which the net earnings are devoted exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes. Learn more from the IRS.

501(c)(4) organizations are tax-exempt, but donations to them are not tax deductible and the identities of donors do not have to be disclosed. These organizations are allowed to engage in unlimited lobbying activities, and can engage in some campaign activity, as long as it is not their primary activity.

To be tax-exempt as a social welfare organization described in Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 501(c)(4), an organization must not be organized for profit and must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare. The promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. However, a section 501(c)(4) social welfare organization may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity.


14 lawmakers ask Treasury to align 501(c)(4) regulations with statute (July 2013)

IRS proposed regulations on political activity for 501(c)(4) organizations (PDF)

The Bright Lines Project

Written testimony of IS President & CEO Diana Aviv at Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing (July 2015)

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