Common folklore among nonprofits with  501 c 3 exemption is that you are not allowed to lobby on causes that are important to you.

As with many common myths, that is partly true, but is not the whole story. Your mission and message are important, how will you get people involved in process that affect you to understand the gravity of your cause.

  • No 501(c)(3) organization may support or oppose a candidate for public office.
  • Really big 501(c)(3)’s,  private foundations such as the Ford Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are heavily taxed on any lobbying expenditures, which effectively acts as a prohibition on lobbying.
  • 501(c)(3) public charities, on the other hand, are clearly permitted to lobby up to a certain dollar limit each year.

In addition to the limitations on the lobbying activities of 501(c)(3) public charities, there is an absolute prohibition on engaging in partisan political activities.

This prohibits direct endorsements or contributions by the nonprofit as well as even the use of org’s  resources to support or oppose a particular candidate or party.

The fact is that nonprofits, even 501(c)(3) organizations, may legally lobby; this category of nonprofit is the most restricted for lobbying activity. Getting involved in the legislative process and having a say in policy discussions is vital; if you don’t speak for your constituents, who will?  

What you can do is ADVOCATE.

What does advocate mean?

Advocacy means to speak up, to plead the case of another, or to fight for a cause.

Advocacy should not be confused with lobbying. Lobbying, as defined by the Internal Revenue Service, involves attempts to influence legislation at the local, state or federal level.

Lobbying always involves advocacy, although advocacy does not always involve lobbying.

Here are some common types of advocacy:

  • educating policymakers and the public about broad social issues,
  • encouraging people to register to vote,
  • organizing communities,
  • educating voters about candidate positions,
  • litigating, and many other activities.

All of the forms of advocacy listed above are unrestricted and unlimited for 501(c)(3) public charities.Nonprofits that do not take advantage of their ability to lobby miss an opportunity to advance policies that will improve the lives of their constituents.

What are you asking for? More research, more funding for research, a change in regulation, access to special services or accommodations for people with special needs?

Consider who is part of the process of making those decisions. Are they local politicians or members of Congress? Maybe it’s the Governor of Mayor.

These are the folks that need to hear your message; they are ones who can help initiate the changes you seek.

What Kinds of Advocacy:

Nonprofits pursue legislative advocacy when the target for change is a federal, state or local law, school board policy, or budget allocation.

Nonprofit advocacy to influence legislation may involve legislative monitoring, committee testifying, lobbying, writing position papers, organizing networks and coalitions, and a variety of other activities.

Community advocacy involves changing the ideas and attitudes of the public. This is usually done  through education programs that may include direct mail, publications, group presentations, and a Web site.

Many nonprofits make effective use of the media to reach the public and promote an issue using newspaper coverage, TV, radio, feature articles, editorials, letters to the editor, news releases, and press conferences.

Some nonprofits find legal advocacy (using lawsuits in the courts to protect or create rights, improve services, or raise public consciousness about an issue) an effective method of accomplishing needed reforms. The advantage of legal advocacy is that courts are open and complainants (those who make a complaint in a legal action) must be heard if the complaint is presented in the proper terms. The challenge here is having the resources to mount such a case, which many of do not.

But Where Do I Start?

  • Start by being engaged and aware of the political process and how you can participate. Visit a local legislator or official.
  • Write a short essay on why this cause means so much to you.
  • Write a letter to the editor of your local paper, online blog.
  • Look to see who are the players in your field, are they other related organizations you could work with?
  • Start a petition, speak at a City Council meeting, don’t worry, they force you to be brief.

Stand up and be heard, that is the only change can happen. And thank you for doing so.

 

image credit: http://www.afterschoolalliance.org/imgs/AdvocacyGuide_Quote(2).png