Politics of neutrality
In an election year, just about everyone has an opinion on a candidate, whether it be positive or negative. However, those affiliated with not-for-profit organizations, or those listed as 501(c)(3) organizations, must be careful with publicizing their political beliefs.
Under law, any organization listed as a 501(c)(3) isn’t allowed to endorse or support a candidate of any kind. This law was written in 1954 when then Sen. Lyndon Johnson was running for reelection. He was losing to an opponent who was backed by two big not-for-profit organizations. In an effort to save his campaign, he urged Congress to pass a bill prohibiting any not-for-profit organization from endorsing candidates, including churches and synagogues.
The bill passed and today it still holds true, despite receiving harsh opposition from time to time.
However, leaders of Jewish 501(c)(3) organizations in Pittsburgh know they must be careful when dealing with an election. While they can have their own opinion, they just can’t use their office to express it.
“What we have come to understand, while our not-for-profit is nonpartial, as private citizens we are entitled to express our opinions, just not while we wear our professional hat,” said Lisa Steindel, executive director for the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, an independent affiliate of the American Jewish Committee. “During work hours co-workers share their thoughts about lots of things together. But we do not politic while we are on the clock.”
Steindel said that she does support one of the candidates, and while she would never mix her opinions with work, does what she can during her free time.
“As a private American citizen, I have gotten involved in one of the campaigns,” she said. “But I don’t use my office to advance that. I don’t make calls from my office, I don’t respond to e-mails during work hours. But during the evening or weekends, I participate as much as I can.”
At the United Jewish Federation, President and CEO Jeffrey Finkelstein said that all of the employees know to take caution when dealing with the election.
“I think not even from a legal perspective but a practical perspective, we encourage people to be careful expressing political beliefs,” he said. “We deal with donors who are Republicans, Democrats, and we just have to be very careful. We don’t want anyone’s political beliefs getting in the way of moving the community forward.”
During an election year, the UJF will sponsor politically driven events, but will make sure both sides are represented and that the UJF doesn’t show support for one side.
Most recently, the UJF held a debate at the Jewish Community Center, with both sides being represented.
“We will do things that don’t pick a side,” Finkelstein said. “We did it during the primaries as well. It’s not about us picking a candidate for ourselves.”
“We even get very careful in an election year inviting political people to come and speak in a program if they are running for office,” he continued. “You have to invite the opposing candidate in to be fair.”
(Mike Zoller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)