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Is Your Nonprofit Leery of Lobbying? Now’s the Time to Get Over It

March 26, 2018

Advocacy-button-770-RSWhoever said "Good things come to those who wait" has never advocated for a cause, shepherded a policy through the legislative process, or run a nonprofit organization. That's especially true if your nonprofit's mission is issue-driven, and it's even more true now, when political upheaval in the Trump era and a looming election put the future of many organizations' missions in question — whether those missions are related to the arts, science and technology, feeding the homeless, fighting for workers’ rights, or another worthy cause. This year, sitting out legislative policy fights is just not an option.

Enter the question of lobbying and some timely new research from academics at George Mason University and the University of Miami. Lobbying is an uncomfortable topic for many nonprofits, but the study's authors challenge the pervasive view that the often-maligned practice is nothing more than a quid pro quo exchange of money for votes. In a piece describing the research, study co-author Jennifer Victor maintains that lobbying is about relationships and is in fact an essential part of our democracy. "[L]obbyists," she writes, "provide an efficient, effective, and knowledgeable source of high quality information that gets injected into the policy making process at all stages. This is generally a good thing, because it can significantly help lawmakers fill gaps in their knowledge base."

By now you can guess where we're going with this: not only should nonprofits revisit their thoughts on lobbying, they should also seriously consider getting in the game. Lobbying is entirely consistent with public charities' charitable and educational missions because it deals directly with the regulatory and statutory context in which groups function. And if nonprofits won't speak for the people they serve when fundamental decisions are being made, who will?

So if it's clear nonprofit groups have every incentive to lobby, we then need to ask: Can they? The good news is that there's no reason why any charitable organization should not have a robust lobbying and advocacy strategy in place.

It's a myth that 501(c)(3) groups are barred from involving themselves in the legislative process. Yes, there are rules and limits, and there is a clear difference between the capabilities of (c)(3)s and their (c)(4) cousins (and yes, private foundations, a type of 501(c)(3), are essentially prohibited from lobbying). But once the rules are understood, they are easily followed and pose no legal or regulatory dangers for (c)(3) public charities that choose to take their message directly to legislators and citizens. A straightforward process of choosing to report lobbying expenditures under what's called the 501(h) test means most public charities are permitted to spend up to 20 percent of their annual budget on lobbying. Here's the no-excuses bottom line: for most public charities, there are no legal barriers to lobbying, and, relative to the potential upside, the additional administrative burdens are minimal.

Oh, and one more thing: the need to participate is even more urgent in an election year like this one.

There is a misunderstanding among some organizations that lobbying during election cycles is risky or even impermissible, since legislators often are also candidates. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It goes without saying that Congress and your state legislature continue to make laws that affect your issues during election years. In fact, the pace of lawmaking can pick up if legislators are eager to establish a track record to appeal to their voting base. But just because many decision makers are also running for office doesn't mean you need to back off from advocacy efforts, including direct or grassroots lobbying. After all, it's during election years that powerful groups, wealthy individuals, super PACs, and other well-funded entities are pushing their agendas the hardest — including those that directly affect your daily work.

It's true, you can’t involve your 501(c)(3) directly in partisan activity, or in supporting or opposing candidates, but that doesn't mean you have to go silent and abandon the battlefield. Your group can still make issue-based appeals, inform voters about pending legislation, and have face-to-face meetings with public officials in their legislative capacity, even if they are also candidates. Remember: No one will speak up for your issues or the people you serve if you won't. That's all lobbying is: making sure your voice is heard by the people whose decisions affect the mission to which you have devoted your life.

We began with a well-worn aphorism that isn't true. But here’s one that is: "Fortune favors the bold." Bold advocacy isn't just your right; it's your obligation. In our competitive democratic system, if you want to create change, you need to enter the fray.

Abby_levine_for_PhilanTopic_2018Abby Levine is director of the Bolder Advocacy program at Alliance for Justice. Bolder Advocacy promotes active engagement in democratic processes and institutions by giving nonprofits and foundations the confidence to advocate effectively and by protecting their right to do so.

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Posted by luba  |   April 19, 2018 at 06:15 PM

I work for a 501c3 and you make a statement that charities can use up to 20% of their annual budget on lobbing, can you clarify if this is inclusive of government grants and private foundation grants? I ask because the bulk of our funding sources are government funding and private foundations, each agreement has a clear no lobbying clause in it so if the majority of our funders prohibit this activity on what money can we calculate the 20% rule? There are a lot of initiatives and bills which we want to support but we have been cautious due to the majority of our funders requirements.

Posted by Ruth Masterson  |   July 18, 2018 at 12:53 PM

Hello, Luba,

The annual budget is the total budget of the organization, irrespective of whether a grant agreement includes language restricting lobbying. You can figure your 20% based on that total.

There is no need for grant agreements to restrict lobbying (unless the grant is an expenditure responsibility grant, which is not common), but unfortunately, many funders do so because they misunderstand of the rules. The only legal restriction is that funders can not proactively earmark funds FOR lobbying.

Best of luck,

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