Looking for new ways to raise money in a tough economy, the Christian Coalition is delving deeply into e-commerce and urging its members to shop.
President Roberta Combs said she hopes to see some of the same success Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean has had raising money over the Internet. Dean has collected more than $5 million from online donors this year.
The 2 million-member Christian Coalition has signed up for a program called SharingCertificates.com. It sells gift certificates redeemable at a range of stores and other businesses and gives a share of the proceeds to the sponsoring group.
"We realize there are many of you who would like to help, but do not have the resources to send a gift monthly," Combs wrote in an e-mail urging people to sign up. "We all shop, go to restaurants, stay at hotels, etc. The SharingCertificates program was developed to enable us to support God's work at no cost to you."
The effort is not the group's first foray into business. Last year, it sent a solicitation urging members to sign up for telephone service with an anti-abortion phone company, Pro Life Communications, that sends profits to the coalition and other groups.
Combs said she has no qualms about mixing religion and commerce. The SharingCertificates program is "no different from religious people going to the mall shopping," she said.
"I think people are starting to be more creative in their fund raising through affinity programs, through the Internet, through different programs that people are offering them," Combs said in a telephone interview. She said she has seen a decline in fund raising as the economy struggles but could not quantify it.
The coalition is among several interest groups pursuing e-commerce to raise money.
The Sierra sells several products on its Web site, including Sierra Club Coffee, described as "artisan blended and certified organic, fair trade coffees from Latin America and the South Pacific."
This year, it began offering Sierra Club Mutual Funds "for people interested in uniting their financial goals with environmental progress." The funds' investment adviser, San Francisco-based Forward Management, pays the Sierra Club a fee for helping to identify socially and environmentally responsible investments.
The AARP, with nonprofit and for-profit arms, has one of the most sophisticated online efforts, offering member services and discounts on air travel, cars, cruises, financial and legal services, hotels, insurance and Internet access.
Ken Gross, an attorney specializing in tax-exempt groups, said a nonprofit must be careful when looking to business to raise money to avoid putting at risk its tax-exempt status. If it's active in federal elections, it also might run afoul of a ban on the use of corporate money for partisan political activity, he said.
"Most of these organizations have different buckets. They have charitable buckets and advocacy buckets and political buckets" for the money they raise, Gross said. "They often allocate funds in a way that makes it permissible."
The Christian Coalition is registered with the Internal Revenue as a tax-exempt social welfare organization. It uses its money for a variety of activities, including widely distributed election-year voter guides describing how members of Congress voted on issues the group has taken positions on.
Combs' SharingCertificates e-mail says the typical family using the program commits to $200 to $300 in purchases each month. They can use the certificates at various mall-type stores, such as Banana Republic, Bath & Body Works and KB Toys, at hotels and restaurants and for services such as Merry Maids and the home services company Rescue Rooter.
The coalition has long been a powerful player in Republican politics. It spent at least $1 million lobbying this year on several issues, including pushing for bans on late-term abortion and human cloning, seeking a crackdown on child pornography and promoting education measures such as legislation on home schooling.