The Non Profit Law blog linked to a really great publication put out by the Alliance for Justice that explains whether your online activity might run afoul prohibitions in your 501 (c) 3 status. This is the clearest explanation of these issues I have read.
“This guide aims to answer the questions nonprofit managers most frequently face regarding the Internet and social media.”
The document covers situations that don’t involve online activity, but really it is the social media element that comprises the uncharted territory that people aren’t clear about. The document makes a distinction between lobbying, which a 501 c 3 non-profit can do and supporting a candidate, which they can’t.
Though sometimes the distinction is very subtle. For example, you can make a post on Representative X’s Facebook account, “Rep X, support the arts by voting Yes on Bill 123.”and that is direct lobbying. If you post a slightly different message, “People of My State, tell Rep X, to support the arts by voting Yes on Bill 123, ” and that is considered grassroots lobbying because it is a general call to others to take some action. If you post, “We love Rep X because she supports the arts and voted Yes on Bill 123,” that is promoting a specific candidate.
Except in some very specific circumstances, you can’t link to a candidate’s website. In fact, you can’t link to any website that promotes a candidate and you are responsible for making sure the content of the site doesn’t change since you first linked to it.
For example, you are doing a renovation and link to the website of the company that is providing you with sustainable wood as a way of proving to your constituency that you are acting responsibly. If the supplier changes their website to criticize a candidate’s stance on logging, your organization might be in trouble.
There are also restrictions on allowing employees to use company equipment, even on their time off, to express support for a candidate.
In answer the question posed by the title of this entry, no, you can’t friend a candidate on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. They are free to friend and follow your organization. Even though etiquette suggests you follow them in return, the IRS suggests you don’t.
About the only time you are safe to have a promotion of a candidate on your website is if you allow Google to place ads on your website and have no control over what they are placing.
There are a lot of other questions answered in the document as well. Since a lot of 501 (c) 3 organizations are associated with 501 (c) 4s which have looser restrictions, they provide some detailed guidance about how closely connected their activities can be. The guide also deals with setting policies for renting your mailing lists, guest bloggers, moderating blog commenters, using photos, hosting videos.
It is clear that there are going to be a lot of nuances specific to the activities of different organizations. However, if you have had questions about what is permissible as lobbying and prohibited as campaign support, and don’t have a tax lawyer immediately available, this is a good place to start to find your answers.