“I can’t lobby, I’m a Nonprofit!” Myths dispelled!

Published February 8, 2013

Advocacy_or_Lobbying.gifMany seasoned nonprofit professionals are not well-informed about the legalities of lobbying and advocacy. There is a general fear of losing one’s 501(c)(3) status and therefore an unwillingness to engage in any type of political activity whatsoever. This misguided reluctance is causing our sector as a whole to waste opportunities to sit at the policy-making table.
Firstly, there is a large and important difference between advocacy and lobbying. Advocacy is educating people about an issue or topic. Direct lobbying, as defined by the IRS, is communicating with a legislator about a specific piece of legislation. Grassroots lobbying is defined as communicating with the general public and encouraging them to contact legislators and lobby them about a specific piece of legislation.

Let’s be clear:

  • Inviting your representatives to attend your nonprofit’s functions: NOT lobbying
  • Sending information to your elected officials about the positive impact your nonprofit makes in their community: NOT lobbying
  • Scheduling an in-person meeting with a legislator to talk about the general state of your sector: NOT lobbying
  • Asking your legislator to vote Yes/No on a bill: Lobbying
  • Taking a stand on an issue in your e-mail newsletter: NOT lobbying.
  • Encouraging those reading a newsletter to contact a legislator and urge them to vote Yes/No on a bill: Lobbying

As you can see, nonprofits can engage in a wide range of political activity without even venturing into lobbying territory. But to dispel another myth – nonprofits are ALLOWED BY LAW to engage in lobbying. Without doing anything, a nonprofit can expend up to 5% of its resources on direct or grassroots lobbying and be in NO DANGER of losing 501(c)(3) status.

Even better, if a nonprofit files a very simple Form 5678, taking the 501(h) election, with the IRS, the allowable amounts for lobbying expenditures are much higher and more well-defined. Highly regarded, national law firm Venable, LLP has made a wonderful document freely available that explains the issue more fully and tells you what exactly is allowable and how to file the form. (It’s a one-time filing, meaning you do not have to fill out a new one every year. It is also the simplest IRS form I have ever seen.)

One thing that 501(c)(3) nonprofits cannot do, ever, is engage in campaigning for candidates. You are never allowed, as an organization, to endorse one candidate or group of candidates over another during a campaign. A nonprofit is allowed to host a debate featuring the candidates, but all candidates for the office need to be invited. A nonprofit IS allowed to take a public stand on an issue in an election (such as a proposed amendment or resolution), just not on a person or a political party.

As a Board Member of the Georgia Arts Network, I created a handout with advocacy/lobbying tips for the recent Georgia Arts Advocacy Day, held at the State Capitol on January 29. The tips are relevant for anyone engaged in advocacy, so I am sharing that document here.

I hope this post has been useful. Please comment with your thoughts, other good advocacy resources, or your questions!