Please contact the Dean of Students Office (dos@law) if your organization has a question about campaign and political activity.
The President and Fellows of Harvard College is a registered 501(c)(3). As such, we must comply with the IRS information below.
The Prohibition on Political Campaign Intervention
Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. The prohibition applies to all campaigns including campaigns at the federal, state and local level. Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes. Those section 501(c)(3) organizations that are private foundations are subject to additional restrictions that are not described in this fact sheet.
What is Political Campaign Intervention?
Political campaign intervention includes any and all activities that favor or oppose one or more candidates for public office. The prohibition extends beyond candidate endorsements. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf of an organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition on political campaign intervention. Distributing statements prepared by others that favor or oppose any candidate for public office will also violate the prohibition. Allowing a candidate to use an organization’s assets or facilities will also violate the prohibition if other candidates are not given an equivalent opportunity. Although section 501(c)(3) organizations may engage in some activities to promote voter registration, encourage voter participation, and provide voter education, they will violate the prohibition on political campaign intervention if they engage in an activity that favors or opposes any candidate for public office. Certain activities will require an evaluation of all the facts and circumstances to determine whether they result in political campaign intervention.
Voter Education, Voter Registration and Get Out the Vote Drives
Section 501(c)(3) organizations are permitted to conduct certain voter education activities (including the presentation of public forums and the publication of voter education guides) if they are carried out in a non-partisan manner. In addition, section 501(c)(3) organizations may encourage people to participate in the electoral process through voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, conducted in a non-partisan manner. On the other hand, voter education or registration activities conducted in a biased manner that favors (or opposes) one or more candidates is prohibited.
Guidance Regarding Pro Bono and Written Credit for Political Activities
However, federal law provides that Harvard may 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.” This prohibition on Harvard’s direct and indirect institutional participation in partisan politics is expressed in Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, as a condition that Harvard must satisfy in order to preserve and retain its status as a tax-‐exempt organization. In addition, the Federal Election Campaign Act (“FECA”) prohibits corporations from making direct and indirect “contributions” or “expenditures” in connection with a campaign or candidate. Contributions include services and anything of value.
Below is information based on guidance from Harvard’s Office of General Counsel on the applicability of FECA and Section 501(c)(3) to students’ proposed submission for credit of pro bono hours and written work relating to political campaign activities.
Pro Bono Credit
HLS’s current practice, which permits a student to receive credit towards the 40-‐hour pro bono requirement for legal work on campaigns for office, is reasonable. A student’s time spent volunteering for a political campaign may be credited toward the HLS pro bono service requirement under the following conditions:
- As set forth in HLS policy, service on political campaigns should continue to be one of a broad array of service-‐related pro bono activities (including work for nonprofit organizations, charities, NGOs, government entities) from which students may freely choose.
- Faculty and staff should take care not to steer students to a campaign as a means of satisfying the pro bono requirement.
- HLS should administer the award of credit in an evenhanded, politically neutral manner.
- Students, faculty and staff should not make use of University resources in undertaking the political activity.
Academic Writing Credit
The question whether HLS may award academic credit for written work relating to campaign activity presents more complications because work for academic credit is typically more likely to involve the use of Harvard resources, including faculty involvement and assistance. It is one thing for a student to receive writing supervision and credit for independently pursuing an issue that arose in connection with his or her campaign activity; it is another for a student to receive writing supervision and credit for work conducted for use by a campaign. Awarding of academic credit for written work drawing on campaign experience is appropriate, but only under the following conditions:
- A student may receive academic credit for, and faculty may supervise, a writing project that arises out of campaign-‐related activities, provided the work is not directed by, prepared for, or to be submitted to a political campaign or any individual working with a campaign.
- All written work submitted for academic credit must comply with the ordinary terms and conditions HLS imposes for granting writing credits, as stated in the Law School’s Handbook of Academic Policies.
- Faculty and staff should take care not to steer students to a campaign as a means of obtaining writing credits.
- HLS should administer the award of credit for written work in an evenhanded, politically neutral manner.
Finally, whether HLS would be viewed as participating indirectly or directly in a campaign will depend on the facts giving rise to the particular request. Additional guidance is available at:
Harvard’s OGC is happy to discuss individual requests for guidance as they are presented.