Email from Nashville non-profit president draws criticism over campaign content

(Photo: WKRN)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – A well-known Nashville nonprofit organization is drawing criticism after its leader appeared to help a handful of candidates running for public office.

Marsha Edwards, president and CEO of the Martha O’Bryan Center, sent an email to employees on June 23 regarding an “urgent need for paid canvassers” to go door-to-door in support of four candidates running for the Metro School Board.

The Martha O’Bryan Center is a nonprofit with a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.

According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), “all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

The email in question reads, in part:

Hello Everyone – I am passing on an urgent need for paid canvassers this Saturday and Sunday (and beyond). Below is the Districts that are in play and the candidates that are paying for canvassing help. I believe that the pay is $10.00 an hour… You can also just volunteer.

If you haven’t done this type of work before, it is really easy. There is an short orientation on the candidate and positions and then you are given a list of addresses. You knock and talk or you leave the information sheet. Sometimes you have to take a note if someone wants the candidate to call them, etc. Both Peter and I have done a lot of this and it is really fun.

All of these candidates are endorsed by TN Stand For Children and are candidates that want to bring more collaboration and data driven deliberation to the School Board. They are all friendly to charters as one strategy to improving results for children.

Also, Jane Meneely (#3) is working for us as an event consultant on a new event we are planning. She would be a strong school board member. I spent some time with Miranda Christy (#5) this morning and feel she would be another strong, smart , well informed and thoughtful school board member.

Edwards told News 2 in a statement that the email was forwarded to employees so it could be passed on to students or anyone in the organization looking for paid work this summer.

“I felt that this was an employment opportunity for young people and we would pass along this type of opportunity for ANY candidate and will continue to do so,” Edwards said. “I added to the email what knowledge I had of the few candidates that I had met and the organization that was hiring. While I have been assured by our legal counsel that this email did not constitute ‘political activity’ as defined by the IRS, I do see how the personal context included in the email could be misunderstood, and I truly regret that.”

Her statement continued, “The Martha O’Bryan Center does not engage in political activity and our track record supports that. We are an organization that has been serving the Nashville community for over 120 years and continues to do so without political bias. At Martha O’Bryan we are about breaking the line of poverty through education, employment and family support, not politics.”

But critics say Edwards used her position to help campaign for the four candidates.

T.C. Weber is a Nashville parent and a public education advocate.

“They don’t just encourage people to get out and vote,” said Weber. “They list four candidates and identify all four of those candidates as being charter-friendly candidates.”

Organizations that are found to have broken federal tax laws can face fines or even lose their tax-exempt status.

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