When to take a stand

Nonprofits navigate dangers of speaking out

WARREN — The Rev. Robin Woodberry faced a dilemma.

As executive director of the Mahoning Valley Association of Churches, she was asked to participate in a panel discussion organized by the local Arab-American community after President Donald J. Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

“There are a lot of Christians that support that, and there are also a lot that don’t,” she said. “I know where I stand, but as a representative of the Association of Churches, where should I stand? What should I do?”

At a time when people have lost their jobs over posts on their personal Facebook accounts and nonprofit organizations are reluctant to do anything that could alienate potential donors, Woodberry isn’t alone in wondering when, and if, to take a stand.

Last week, representatives from nearly 20 groups and organizations participated in “Speaking Out: The Power of Finding and Exercising Your Public Voice,” the first half of a two-part workshop offered by the Raymond John Wean Wean Foundation.

For groups with 501(c)(3) nonprofit status (which means they don’t have to pay federal income tax and donations to them are tax-deductible), there are legal concerns.

Panelist John Pogue, a lawyer with Harrington, Hoppe & Mitchell Ltd., said while nonprofits cannot endorse specific candidates, they can take a position on a particular issue.

“But it can’t be a substantial part of what you do as a charity,” Pogue said. “What is a ‘substantial’ part? No one really knows.”

The vagaries of the code can make it difficult, but Pogue said groups are better off speaking out consistently about issues that involve them.

“Don’t be silent and then suddenly, two weeks before an election, come out with an opinion,” he said. “That’s a red flag, which will most likely bring a complaint, which is how the IRS will come to investigate you.”

His other warning was to avoid any activity that could be construed as political fundraising for a particular candidate.

“If anybody uses (a nonprofit) as a fundraiser, that’s the kiss of death,” Pogue said.

Woodberry decided it was important for the Mahoning Valley Association of Churches to be a part of that panel discussion, but she believed her role shouldn’t be to offer a personal opinion. Instead, she wanted to serve as a bridge between the Christian and Muslim communities.

“We offered ourselves as agents of dialogue between the different groups,” she said. “Let us be seen as a conduit in the community for promoting peace, for encouraging unity.”

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