As we mark International Women’s Day in 2022, the complex social and political context we find ourselves in today has powerful implications for the progress of Connecticut’s women toward equity and justice.

A number of factors drive progress for women, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, including the economic opportunity for women created by work supports such as childcare and paid family medical leave; freedom from violence such as domestic abuse, sexual assault and workplace harassment; as well as the political representation and influence on public policy that raise up the voices and perspectives of women.

Mary Lee A. Kiernan

While YWCA Greenwich and YWCAs across the country provide childcare, preschool and afterschool care, housing, domestic violence and sexual assault services, all empowering women and communities 365 days per year, year after year, it is the raising of our collective voices to advance women, particularly women of color and others marginalized in our communities, that is now proving to be particularly challenging. Federated and individual non-profit organizations across the country that are also dedicated to gender and racial equity and justice are facing the same new challenges to longstanding efforts to illuminate inequality and promote progress.

The authorization by the IRS to non-profits is clear: each 501(c)(3) organization is authorized to engage in activities aimed at influencing legislation (commonly called lobbying) as long as this activity does not rise to a “substantial part” of the activities of such organization. Why did Congress clearly authorize such legislative activities as appropriate and legitimate? Congress authorized non-profits to engage in legislative activities in order to connect policymakers with those agencies who have “boots on the ground” providing services and supports to the sick, the vulnerable and the marginalized in every community. Policymakers hear from experts in every industry and every context, and 501(c)(3) organizations are explicitly authorized to directly influence and encourage others to influence legislation at the federal, state and local levels within the above limit. These legislative activities are essential for non-profits everywhere to more fully execute on their charitable missions and programs.

In contrast, 501(c)(3) organizations are strictly prohibited from engaging in “political activities.” These activities include “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office,” “contributions to political campaign funds,” or “public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.”  501(c)(3) organizations steer clear of campaigns and candidates running for office, as well as activities that might give the appearance of endorsing a candidate. Our YWCA has turned down candidates on both sides of the aisle who sought to hold public events at our building in the weeks leading up to elections, for example.

Today, non-profits in Connecticut and across the country face the confusion and conflating of these two categories of activities –the legitimate “legislative” activities of charitable organizations are confused with prohibited “political” activities. Non-profits that advocate on issues such as violence against women or the gender and racial dimensions of poverty are called “political.” Their “boots on the ground” expertise and strategies to address pressing human service issues are de-legitimized and dismissed as somehow outside of acceptable discourse.

Furthermore, activities by these organizations such as public awareness events, panel discussions, and social media efforts are also labeled “political” even though these educational activities are neither “legislative” nor “political” activities under IRS rules.

How do non-profits navigate the current context as they seek to use their voices and their influence to empower women and promote progress on issues of systemic inequity?

Educate – Educate policymakers, community leaders and constituents on the legitimate and important role of non-profits in promoting legislation that supports the charitable missions and impactful programs of non-profit organizations.

Expertise – Demonstrate the expertise and experience that non-profits bring to the discussion of pressing social issues and systemic inequities. Hearing the unique “boots on the ground” perspective of those organizations directly serving the public is essential for sound policymaking.

Future generations – Reach younger constituents whose experience with social media and the internet normalizes the equality of all voices and perspectives, including those of women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities.

Older generations – Reach older constituents and recall how longstanding and legitimate legislative efforts that were sometimes labeled “political” in the past achieved historic milestones in the progress of women toward gender equity.

Private sector – Partner with the private sector to promote gender equity and giving voice to women. Public companies, in particular, are increasingly important leaders in promoting gender equity and justice across a range of workplace issues and along their supply chains.

Walk the walk – Promote gender and racial equity and give voice to the voiceless in your own organizations. Be a model for promoting equity and justice that inspires other organizations and constituents in your community.

International Women’s Day 2022 is a pivotal moment as our communities and our state recover from a pandemic that caused historic setbacks for women across a range of issues from workforce participation to domestic violence.

Join us in empowering women in this moment by legitimizing and raising the voices and perspectives of women and organizations dedicated to gender equity.

Mary Lee A. Kiernan is President and CEO of the YWCA Greenwich.