The Internal Revenue Service prohibits charities from getting mixed up in politics, and those that do risk losing their tax exemption. Despite the threat, a handful of groups in the 2014 midterm elections paid for ads that appeared to be campaign-related.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, for example, is known as a 501(c)(3) organization, meaning it pays no income taxes and donations to the group are tax deductible. It is organized the same way as a charity, a hospital or university.
Despite the risk, the NRDC lambasted North Carolina Republican state Sen. Bill Cook in a $700,000 ad campaign this spring. The nonprofit paid for eight different ads that aired more than 2,600 times from mid-April through mid-July, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from media tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.
One ad opens with video of trash being emptied into a landfill, then turns to a shot of Cook.
“State Sen. Bill Cook voted for a bill that would encourage New York, New Jersey and other states to dump their trash in North Carolina,” the voiceover says. “Tell Bill Cook attracting New York trash doesn’t pass the smell test.”
The NRDC, whose mission is to promote environmentally friendly policies, said the ads had nothing to do with the Cook's re-election campaign. If the ads had been, the organization could face a fine or lose its tax-exempt status as a charity.