News and analysis
November 06, 2012

Fundraising PAC Aims to Give Charities a Political Voice

The biggest contribution—$5,000—went to Orrin Hatch, the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees tax-exempt organizations.

Many nonprofit leaders will be watching on Tuesday to see whether members of Congress with influence over nonprofit policy will win their bids for reelection. But one group will be particularly attentive because it has money in the game.

The Association of Fundraising Professionals operates what it believes is the only political-action committee that makes campaign contributions to federal candidates based exclusively on whether they support—or are in a position to sway—government action to benefit philanthropy.

This election cycle, the PAC contributed $24,000 to 10 members of Congress who are (or were) up for re-election, six in the House and four in the Senate. The biggest contribution—$5,000—went to Orrin Hatch, the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees tax-exempt organizations. He faced a tough primary election in Utah but now is running far ahead in the polls against his Democratic challenger, Scott Howell.

The committee also donated to five members of the House Ways and Means Committee, which also oversees tax-exempt organizations­­­—including $3,500 to John Lewis of Georgia, the senior Democrat on the oversight subcommittee, and $1,000 to Charles Boustany of Louisiana, the subcommittee’s Republican chairman.

Mr. Lewis is expected to win re-election, but Mr. Boustany—who has been holding a series of hearings about charity regulation—is involved in a heated race against another Republican member of Congress, Jeff Landry, because Louisiana lost one seat due to redistricting.

A Foot in the Door

While it has attracted little public attention, AFP’s political-action committee has been donating to Congressional candidates since the 2004 election - an effort that is an outlier in the nonprofit world, which generally shies away from partisan politics on its own behalf.

Another group, CForward, set up a PAC last year to funnel money to candidates with solid plans to strengthen nonprofits but is focusing exclusively on state and local races.

The fundraising association created its PAC as part of a broader effort to step up advocacy over the past decade, says Jason Lee, AFP’s general counsel and the PAC’s treasurer. While some AFP members worried at first about getting so entwined in politics, he says, “the level of commitment has definitely grown.”

That is partly because the charitable world has come under increasing scrutiny—for example, by Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who formerly chaired the Senate Finance Committee and led an effort to crack down on charity abuses that resulted in provisions in the Pension Protection Act of 2006.

The PAC is small as Washington political players go, but Mr. Lee says it helps get AFP’s foot in the door so it can present its case. For example, PAC contributors sometimes get invited to meet with members of Congress at small gatherings.

“Basically it’s a complementary tool,” he says. “You could never solely rely on a PAC to move the needle on the issue. It gives you that additional level of interaction with an office.”

Gives to Incumbents

In deciding which candidates to back, the PAC—chaired by Scott Staub, executive director of Friends of the San Francisco Public Library—takes factors into account including committee assignments, seniority and leadership positions, stance on AFP issues, and experience as a nonprofit staff member, volunteer, or board member.

This time around, the committee decided to give $2,500 to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, because he introduced legislation that would require the country’s richest Americans to pay a minimum share of their incomes in taxes but allow them to continue using the charitable deduction, Mr. Lee says.

The committee gives only to incumbents and works to support a balance of Democrats and Republicans. (It donated to five of each this election cycle.)

A Dispassionate Choice

Not everyone appreciates such a narrow approach. The PAC has drawn criticism from some AFP members for contributing money to former Sen. Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania, who holds hard-line conservative views about social issues like homosexuality. But the bottom line for the PAC was that the senator championed nonprofit-friendly policies, including pushing the Charity Aid, Recovery, and Empowerment Act, a bill to expand tax incentives for charitable giving, Mr. Lee says.

The committee members made the decision they thought was right for the nonprofit field, says Michael Delzotti, director of development at the University of Texas-MD Anderson Cancer Center and AFP’s chair of government relations. “For them, it was a dispassionate decision.”

Note: To find out more about the contributions made by AFP's political action committee over the years, see the OpenSecrets Web site. The information for the 2012 election cycle does not yet take into account some of the PAC's recent contributions.

Send an e-mail to Suzanne Perry.