By Jill Iman, Ph.D., Joining Vision and Action
In light of recent events, we’re dusting off this blog from 2014 to share with you again.
Can I advocate? A question many nonprofits likely ask themselves at some point during their lifetimes, and one we hear at JVA, revolves around their ability to, and the legality of, engaging in advocacy efforts. With complicated and burdensome rules, many choose not to engage in advocacy activities for the fear that they may be construed as lobbying and lose their status.
Briefly put, nonprofits are legally entitled to advocate, but they cannot participate in partisan politics. And going one step closer to a soapbox answer, it is actually critical that nonprofits advocate as politics and policies directly and indirectly affect their work and the communities and constituents that they represent (perhaps, now and in the near future, more than ever).
There are important distinctions between advocacy and lobbying worth noting. By definition, lobbying is any attempt to influence specific legislation, either through contact with policy makers designed to encourage their support or opposition of legislation or by directly advocating for the adoption or rejection of legislation. There are two types of lobbying: Direct and Grassroots (see table).
The general rule of the IRS code for 501(c)(3)s is that “no substantial part” of nonprofit activities can be directed towards influencing legislation. However, this is incredibly vague and is cumbersome to document because it is not restricted to financials (e.g., volunteers who work to pass a bill may qualify as a substantial part of the organization). In 1976 (with final regulations released in 1990), it became possible for organizations to elect to be governed by sections 501(h) and 4911 of the Internal Revenue Code. In sum, these regulations permit organizations to spend a certain percentage of their exempt purpose expenditures (i.e., the budget) on direct lobbying activities
With all this said however, this blog was not intended to be an official guide for lobbying, but rather to identify activities that do not qualify as lobbying. To be clear, advocacy activities are activities that are not restricted for nonprofits.
The truth is, as a nonprofit you are probably already advocating every day through your work, but below we outline some concrete activities that while advocacy, would not be considered lobbying:
- Visiting and educating elected officials
- Hosting nonpartisan events or site visits for policy makers
- Making available the results of nonpartisan analysis or research
- Discussing broad social issues without mentioning specific legislation
Also, keep in mind that there is an exception for “self defense” lobbying, meaning there is not limit on communications with policymakers on actions that could affect your existence, duties and powers or tax-exempt status.
As a quick and dirty overview of lobbying, we recommend an additional conversation before beginning to engage in any activities that may be considered as such. But in the meantime, just know that while all lobbying is a form of advocacy, not all forms of advocacy are considered lobbying. And as we all think about and prepare for what the future has in store, please remember that YOU are allowed to engage in “lobbying” activities on your own time, at your own expense, while not explicitly connecting yourself to the organization (i.e., uses organization’s resources or name).
The chart below outlines the differences between advocacy and lobbying.
 Speak for yourself: Nonprofit advocacy toolkit. The Colorado Nonprofit Association. https://www.coloradononprofits.org/sites/default/files/attachments/Public-Policy-Toolkit-02.07.2012_0.pdf.