Q: In a board discussion of possible advocacy efforts, trustees recalled our founding documents, which prohibit “carrying on propaganda.” Where does this phrase come from and what exactly does it mean?

A: The phrase “carrying on propaganda” comes from Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code, which describes, in part:

Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes…no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h)), and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office. (emphasis added)

If the phrase appears in articles of incorporation or governing documents, the writer most likely wanted it understood that the organization met —to the letter —the government’s definition of a 501(3) tax-exempt corporation. “Carrying on propaganda” isn’t expressly defined here, but “political propaganda” was defined in the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938.

In essence, the phrase means that no substantial part of your organization’s activities can be dedicated to influencing specific legislation or advocating disorder and overthrow of the U.S. government.

Contrary to popular belief, though, you can engage in significant advocacy efforts amid these prohibitions. Your organization can publish research, develop ad campaigns, convene stakeholders, and, under certain circumstances, lobby and fund grantees that do so.

For more information, see:

  • Ted Deutsch, Investing in Change: Why Supporting Advocacy Makes Sense for Foundations (Atlantic Philanthropies, 2008)
  • Julia Coffman, Foundations and Public Policy Grantmaking (James Irvine Foundation, 2008)
  • Kelly Shipp Simone, Top 10 Ways Private Foundations Can Influence Public Policy (Council on Foundations, 2007)
  • Investing in Change: A Funder’s Guide to Supporting Advocacy (Alliance for Justice, 2004)

Friends of the Family and Family Philanthropy Online subscribers can also access downloadable audio and materials from a recent teleconference “Family Foundations and Advocacy: Making Your Grant Dollars Go Further” with Foundation Advocacy Counsel Abby Levine of Alliance for Justice.