Yes You Can: Ground Rules for Nonprofit Lobbying and Advocacy
In the nonprofit world, we face tough challenges every day. And different challenges require different solutions. Your organization may need to play offense to advance its cause or, at times, play defense to block certain policy threats. Whatever the approach, there are many paths you can take to achieve your mission through advocacy.
The word advocacy is used a lot, most times incorrectly. Advocacy is defined as the public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy. Which really means it covers a lot. Advocacy includes common tactics such as coalition building, online engagement, education, media outreach, research and lobbying. Yes, even lobbying. Public policy advocacy is a critical function of nonprofits.
Decisions get made every day on Capitol Hill that have a profound impact on your nonprofit, and all too often, if you are not at the table you are left to pick up the pieces. Whenever you can balance elevating your organization's voice and needs of the communities you serve with championing those voices for public officials who may not otherwise hear them, you are creating a positive and lasting effect for your cause.
Given the many issues facing nonprofits today, and the people they serve, it is more important than ever to get involved in the public policy debate. When it comes to lobbying, there are many misconceptions. Lobbying does not always include giving money to politicians or their campaigns, but can mean reaching out to a specific legislator or group of legislators to ensure that the voice of their constituents (and your supporters) is truly being heard—and listened to.
So who can lobby?
To clear up some misconceptions, the following are some key definitions based on a nonprofit's tax-exempt status:
- 501(c)3 Public Charities can lobby within certain limits, but their ability to freely conduct political or lobbying efforts is constrained by factors such as the size of the organization in relation to how it allocates money toward any and all lobbying efforts.
- 501(c)3 Private Foundations may not lobby, except in self defense, and cannot directly fund lobbying. However, they can fund programs and organizations that include lobbying.
- 501(c)4 Social Welfare Organizations may engage in unlimited lobbying to further their social welfare purpose.
Knowing what constitutes lobbying under the law, and what the limits are, is key to being able to lobby legally and safely. But before you read any further—please keep in mind that this is a general overview of nonprofits and lobbying. For more specific details about lobbying for your organization, contact your tax professional.