The 501c4 Ambassador/Hub Program: A Model for Potential Candidates
Updated: Mar 8, 2020
I was recently asked to write a brief for a Middle Eastern head of state (not Israel) about the formation of a “think tank” in his country. Disclosure as to what specific country inspired the following pages must remain a mystery. I can, however, confirm that this country has a fair amount of inter-ethnic and religious conflict. Though 501c3 think tanks hold a place in my heart, the brief I wrote inspired an idea for a 501c4 franchise system.
In my early twenties, I was a resident volunteer for a Jewish organization whose mission was outreach and community building for young Jewish adults ages 21 to 32. Though the organization is headquartered in California, there are nearly 80 local branches throughout the world from Boston to Beijing. Each branch hosts social gatherings, educational classes, and religious functions. The success of the organization is fantastic, but it generally lacks the efficiency that comes with a vertical leadership structure. This is however, by design, as each neighborhood community is quite geographically and culturally different. Though there are general standards pertaining to behavior and inclusion, the organization remains versatile and adaptive to each distinctive community.
Events are run out of houses and apartments, and the volunteers who live in these facilities receive a slight housing subsidy. They also receive funding for hosting events. The result is a vibrant, grassroots system of participation. Each hub attracts its own special community, with “out of the way” hubs drawing in participants by the dozens, and the more successful hubs, by the hundreds. All operations are run by two to four resident volunteers.
It should be said that Moishe House is a non-political 501c3 organization. However, a similar model would transition well to other nonprofits, and would be especially useful to 501c4’s.
What is a 501c4???
A 501c4 is a semi tax-deductible public good organization. Unlike a 501c3, a 501c4 is able to conduct political affairs, though that may not be the primary function of the organization. The organizations explicit funding of political activities (such as elections and campaigns) is taxable, as opposed to its social or charitable activities, which are not taxable.
The benefit of a 501c4 for the politically motivated individual is partnership. A 501c4 allows for the building of an accessible infrastructure of supporters and partner institutions. The social and idealistic goals of this kind of organization often coincide with a party or candidate, who is then supported throughout campaigns and subsequent elections.
The real benefit of a 501c4 is its ability to build latent, yet explosive potential. Elections occur periodically, but infrequently. The wise 501c4 that adheres to its legal structure, ensuring that the majority of its activities are not overtly political, can use corollary positioning to build a larger potential constituency, and reach out to them when the time arises.
For example, if a given senator was passionate about 1st amendment rights and assisting legal immigrants, his/her 501c4 can spend five years promoting these issues and use the sixth year to assist with his/her campaign. A Democratic Party aligned candidate can reach out to independent and even Republican registrants with a fair degree of success under the banner of a non profit, and then flip them during the election year.
Why not just build a 501c3???
So, why not simply have an apolitical 501c3 and a separate, intentionally orchestrated political campaign? There are two reasons that stand out. The first reason why a candidate may want a 501c4 is to create a legitimate, legal and official association between the political figure and the beliefs of their nonprofit. Nonprofits have the perception of a moral high ground in American society, especially among donor demographics. The American public is largely unaware of the differences between a 501c3 and 501c4, and thinks of nonprofits as being above reproach. The notion of an overtly political nonprofit is generally foreign to American citizens.
The second reason a political figure may want a 501c4 is to build a political infrastructure accessible in the case of a future election. Unlike political campaigns, 501c4’s are not associated with a political party, but rather a cause or set of causes. This means that the barrier to entrance political parties face in reaching new demographics is lowered, or removed entirely. Subjects like foreign policy, civil liberties and prison reform are, perhaps surprisingly, apolitical. A 501c4 under the banner of the aforementioned causes has the potential to access new demographics of people who are personally invested in said causes, even if such a 501c4 is officially associated with a political figure. A 501c4 can build a much wider infrastructure than an overt election campaign, and has the potential to transfer that infrastructure over to the efforts of the officially associated political figure upon his/her decision to run for office.
Let’s focus on infrastructure building...
I see the most important use of a 501c4 as its potential to build a versatile infrastructure and new constituency that can be accessed during a campaign. This is especially appealing for Republicans, who have traditionally had difficulty accessing younger and minority populations. A politically affiliated nonprofit can access these populations much more successfully than a partisan election campaign.
The expenses of reaching new populations and building an infrastructure cannot be ignored. This is where the Moishe House model comes into play. It can do with a few changes.
Here is the proposal: 501c4’s should open up strategically placed hubs of young influencers by partially subsidizing housing in exchange for promoting the causes of the nonprofit. In the modern era of digital communications, new media and social media, network effects can produce exponential growth and reach. Network effects can be created by having subsidized hubs coordinate between each other. This would detail participation and promotion of events, content creation and digital communications. It is my experience that young people, especially students and young nonprofit workers, are excited about participation and in need of some financial assistance so early in their careers.
Activities of the Ambassador/Hub Program...
The 501c4 Ambassador/Hub program is in many ways derived from my experience with the Moishe House organization. In fact, many of the activities should stay the same. Moishe House focuses on outreach and community building in a very localized sense. The goal is to access people who live in the neighborhood and bordering neighborhoods. Events hosted where good food, good wine and good company is present does wonders for building community. It should be the case that the 501c4 Ambassador/Hub program does the same thing.
Rather than have a Sabbath Dinner, there can be a weekend cookout. Instead of having a class on the religious tradition around blowing the Shofar (ram’s horn), a class can be delivered on the reasons for certain core beliefs. Young people are hungry. Scratch that. Young people are starving for real life, authentic interaction. Friendships, professional networks, and even life partners are all best discovered and cultivated in an organic, in-person community. While it is true that technology can assist with finding these communities, it will never be a healthy and fulfilling replacement for real human interaction.
The technology, however, cannot be overlooked. Even the best beer needs a halftime ad at the superbowl. Technology in the form of new media, social media and communications technology allows for a large scale reach that has previously been impossible. For example, Moishe House residents are required to keep an up to date news letter that is released by email to their entire assembled list every month. Most Moishe House locations also keep active social media accounts on Facebook and Instagram. This technological arm is a good way to post community announcements such as events, event pictures, and even birthdays! As a result, community engagement, both online and in person, is extremely high.
Another side of the technology is new media. Social media is all about sharing content on platforms with a low barrier to entrance, like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Communications technology is all about distributing information through email and texting. Where social media targets multi-directional sharing, and communications technology targets uni-directional sharing, new media entails content creation.
New media content creation is an opportunity for 501c4 ambassadors/hubs to tap into a young, excited community. Young recruits are eager to write blogs, share opinion pieces and create informational YouTube videos. Some development must take place to ensure proper training and editorial oversight, but that would not be too difficult. In addition, providing some basic equipment like cameras, tripods, video editing software and lighting is a slight overhead cost to promote a large increase in production quality. Improved quality and decreased cost of technology have made a professional set up cheaper than ever.
Any 501c4 attempting to engage in this endeavor has a grand opportunity to build in-person community infrastructure as well as digital infrastructure. Large in-community events where collaboration occurs between hubs for in-person events can also happen online. A network between ambassadors for online collaboration and content creation is also an opportunity for the 501c4. The activities of the Ambassador/Hub program are focused on building an authentic, young community that will develop into a long term, accessible infrastructure.
Is it really feasible???
Would it really be possible to get young people on board for subsidized housing (pun very much intended) in exchange for running these hubs?
In short, yes.
The longer version is that there are a plethora of young people, especially students, throughout the United States who are passionate about new technology, political activism and self expression. They are in search of such an outlet that can present well on a resume. A large subset of these up-and-comers are in need of assistance with finances. One should not think about these young recruits as employees, but rather passionate ambassadors. Indeed, the cost to subsidize the hubs is relatively inexpensive. Three ambassadors in one hub (a single subsidized residence) can cost as little as $16,000 per year. Low-balling a single employee’s cost would be $40,000. For the cost of one disenfranchised, low paid employee, a 501c4 could take on as many as 9 volunteer ambassadors whose collaboration can create a network effect that impacts tens of thousands of passionate young people. In addition, the costs associated with employment such as payroll and healthcare organization are not incurred under the ambassador/hub model.
With a low overhead and strategically designed incentive model, ambassador recruiting for this program can easily become a reality. New demographics of racially diverse young people are within reach. I would argue that there is a vast array of potential recruits for this subsidy program. The trick to establishing these hubs is to understand that at least in this strategy, the chicken must follow the egg and that the egg must be incubated. That is to say that the establishment of hubs should seek out existing young talent and then assist with development. Researching social media influencers at say university institutions is rather simple. What is more complicated is making character assessments on potential recruits. From my experience in Moishe House and interviewing social media influencers, finding young people who are politically aligned, socially extroverted and legitimately sincere can be difficult. Having a young experienced professional well versed in community style living is crucial for recruit selection.
It is my belief that this Ambassador/Hub program has enormous potential. 501c4’s are in place for a number of reasons; one of those reasons is for individuals to embark on pre-campaign reachout. Initial reachout and subsequent campaigns both require extensive infrastructure. The Ambassador/Hub program is infrastructure growth hacking, through the application of network effects in one of the most important demographics possible. Republicans who have found difficulty in reaching young and diverse constituencies should take special note: the Ambassador/Hub program is a latent, but explosive strategy for infrastructure growth.