International Development, Community, and Environment

Document Type



This paper provides a framework for understanding the role of member-based, politically active 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations in U.S. civil society. Tax-exempt social welfare (501(c)(4)) organizations make up the second largest group of nonprofit organizations in the United States. Among them are a mix of membership organizations, social clubs, professional associations, and advocates that are permitted to lobby and engage in partisan political activities. Informed by the literature, case study research, and a dataset of politically active 501(c)(4) organizations, we identify categories of politically active (c)(4) organizations involved in electoral and policy change actions including national advocacy organizations, local and state member organizations, (c)(4) funders, and shell entities. We discuss four analytic considerations that can guide future research on member-based, politically active organizations including (1) engagement activities, (2) organizational characteristics, (3) context, and (4) outcomes. We then provide an example of how we have applied this approach to a subset of organizations that build civic leadership and political capacity in communities that have experienced structural inequality and racism. We explain how these organizations engage members in grassroots organizing and advocacy strategies in order to impact elections and policy change. By explaining how the (c)(4) structure can enable organizations to involve members in political action, we enhance theoretical understanding of politically active (c)(4)s as mediating structures of political engagement. The paper concludes with proposed avenues for further empirical investigation.

Publication Title

Nonprofit Policy Forum

Publication Date


First Page


Last Page






social welfare organizations, 501(c)(4) organizations, nonprofit advocacy, political action, grassroots community organizing

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.