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May 27, 2018

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Maximize your political dollars: Tips and tricks for donating

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Recent national events and elections have put political advocacy at the forefront of people’s consciousness. In particular, mass shootings in Florida and in Las Vegas have prompted renewed conversations about groups that advocate for particular policies and the role those organizations play in government. The upcoming elections mean candidates and issue-based advocacy groups are seeking more funding and support than ever.

It’s not easy to know how best to make an impact with your time and money. There are hundreds of political advocacy groups, many of which overlap, that offer people a way to get their voices heard.

Here, we break down how these types of organizations operate and what their missions, abilities and limitations are, so you can make an informed choice if you’d like to contribute.

How to choose

Pro tip

Not sure which organization to give to? Political Advocacy Groups (politicaladvocacy.org) is a great resource. The website lists dozens of advocacy groups organized by issue area: land use, veterans, crime and justice, tax reform, education, and many more. Choose a topic that interests you, and find out which organizations are focused on that issue, on both sides of the aisle. Political Advocacy Groups also allows users to search groups by tax status or media visibility.

When it comes to political advocacy groups, generally, the bigger, the better. Large, well-known organizations typically have the most money and clout, and therefore wield the most power in influencing votes and policy.

Be smart when giving

Consider whether an organization or campaign is specific enough in its mission and messaging to influence the targeted recipient.

Read every petition carefully before signing it to determine how it will be used. Some petitions are used to encourage donations rather than to affect policy.

Experienced scammers can make phony organizations sound pretty legit. Be wary of donating over the phone during an unsolicited call. If you’d like to contribute, locate contact information for the group yourself rather than giving financial information to a caller. Similarly, to avoid phishing scams, don’t click on links in emails. Instead, type the name of the group into your browser.

Legitimate organizations don’t offer prizes or financial incentives for donations.

If donating online, always use a secure https site to protect your privacy and data. Use a credit card rather than a debit card, so fraudulent charges can be disputed if they occur.

How much lobbying is too much?

Judges have ruled that any amount less than 5 percent of a 501(c)(3)’s total budget is considered minor lobbying and is allowed, while any amount in the 16-20 percent range is considered substantial lobbying and is not permitted. A Johns Hopkins University study found that 85 percent of nonprofits devote less than 2 percent of their budgets to lobbying. If the IRS determines that a substantial part of a nonprofit group’s activities relate to lobbying, it can revoke the organization’s tax-exempt status for the year.

Modern advocacy

Tight on cash? You can still get involved. Participate in a political advocacy campaign by signing a petition for or against an issue of concern to you, by donating your time to a group you support or by contacting elected representatives to share your point of view.

Technology makes getting involved easier than ever. Numerous apps and services exist to help people take an active role in advocating for what they believe.

• 5 Calls (app): If you have five minutes, you have time to make five phone calls. That’s the logic behind 5 Calls, which researches issues and determines which representatives are most influential on each topic, then collects phone numbers for those representatives’ offices and provides users with a written script to use to call that representative about the issue. As of last week (March 11), the app had facilitated more than 2.1 million calls. Recent topics have included demanding a federal ban on assault weapons, urging Congress to support a legislative fix for DACA and asking lawmakers to protect SNAP to ensure people’s continued access to food assistance programs.

• Daily Action (text message service): This service sends you a text message every morning with instructions for a simple action to take: sharing a video, texting a news article to friends or calling a senator. Operated by the Creative Majority PAC, Daily Action is affiliated with MoveOn.org and leans left. The service boasts more than 250,000 users and takes credit for helping to reverse the GOP’s decision to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics and the decision of Customs and Border Protection to release detainees held under President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

• Voices: Call Congress (app): Many advocacy groups use Voices to send calls to action to supporters. Supporters answer the calls by calling, tweeting or emailing elected officials about the topic. By participating in a coordinated way, the supporters help to amplify the message. The app also enables advocacy groups to receive data and insights about how supporters responded to the calls to action.

Understanding the different types of organizations

Pro tip

In most cases, organizations are required to state clearly in fundraising solicitations whether a contribution is tax-deductible.

Many nonprofit organizations have related political groups. Under IRS tax code, it’s legal to transfer money from a 501(c)(3) to a 501(c)(4). Consider the American Civil Liberties Union as an example: The ACLU Foundation is a 501(c)(3) that conducts educational activities, while the ACLU is a 501(c)(4) that sponsors political lobbying.

Many 527s also are affiliated with nonprofit organizations. The Sierra Club, for instance, has at least four separate political and nonprofit wings.

501(c)(3)

• Definition: Nonprofit, tax-exempt group that operates for religious, charitable, scientific or educational purposes

• Examples: United Way, American Cancer Society

• Ability to engage in politics: No, however some voter registration activities are permitted

• Allowed to endorse candidates: No

• Campaign spending: Prohibited

• Lobbying: Some lobbying

• Political advocacy: Yes, as long as it is educational only

• How much you can contribute: Unlimited

• Are contributions tax-deductible? Yes

• Donor reporting: Donors kept anonymous

• Organization must apply with the IRS: Yes

501(c)(4)

• Definition: Social welfare organization or civic league intended to benefit a community or the public at large

• Examples: Americans for Prosperity, Crossroads GPS

• Ability to engage in politics: Yes, as long as this does not become the group’s primary purpose

• Allowed to endorse candidates: Yes

• Campaign spending: Permitted but taxed

• Lobbying: Substantial lobbying

• Political advocacy: Yes, provided it is not the primary activity of the organization

• How much you can contribute: Unlimited

• Are contributions tax-deductible? No

• Donor reporting: Donors kept anonymous

• Organization must apply with the IRS: No

527

The most common types of 527s are those affiliated with interest groups, unions or associations of elected officials, such as the Republican Governors Association or Democratic Municipal Officials.

• Definition: Tax-exempt group created primarily to raise money for political activities and to influence policy, elections and appointments on the federal, state or local level

• Examples: Emily’s List, Citizens United

• Ability to engage in politics: Required

• Allowed to endorse candidates: Yes; also allowed to field candidates

• Campaign spending: Required

• Lobbying: No direct lobbying

• Political advocacy: Yes

• How much you can contribute: Unlimited

• Are contributions tax-deductible? No

• Donor reporting: Donors disclosed publicly

• Organization must apply with the IRS: Yes

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.