Nonprofits as Lobbyists?

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Nonprofits walk a fine line between advocacy and lobbying. In its simplest form a nonprofit is, by definition, an advocate. It stands up for individuals, animals, or inanimate objects that do not have the power to do so for themselves. The nonprofit’s ultimate function is to create public awareness of an existing problem, and bring the community together in order to address it. Where public policy can impact a charity’s ability to carry out its mission, either positively or negatively, it is in an excellent position to speak up not only for the organization itself, but on behalf of those it serves.

Although a nonprofit cannot endorse either a candidate for public office or a specific partisan platform, it can engage in so-called “grassroots lobbying.” For example, a charity that provides health care services for under-insured children might join a coalition of child advocacy organizations in addressing a host of policy issues to improve the lives of vulnerable children and their families. Together they can educate the public about important legislation currently under review by presenting the underlying facts and statistics. They can then encourage citizens to contact their legislators based upon their own, informed opinions. One important distinction: the “call to action” is a communication, not a vote.

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When the IRS looks at 501(c)(3) charities to determine whether their lobbying activities are consistent with their tax-exempt status, one of the major criteria considered is how long they have engaged in that particular activity. If an organization suddenly takes an interest in public policy a few months prior to an election, it draws attention to itself. This is why November is a good time to address the topic of lobbying. With elections soon to be behind us, it is time for every nonprofit to reflect on what it stands for, and how it stands for it. By rededicating itself to being knowledgeable about issues pertinent to its mission, a nonprofit can become an expert resource not only for the public, but for current legislators and future candidates as well.

This can be done by:
• Encouraging discussion of the broad, social impact of specific programs at seminars and conferences;
• Making available nonpartisan analysis, study or research to the media;
• Providing technical assistance or advice to a legislative body or committee on request;
• Updating all nonprofit staff, board members and volunteers on the status of legislation, without specifying a call to action.

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Perhaps not coincidentally, National Philanthropy Day (NPD) also falls in the month of November. It is a day to celebrate charitable organizations, the fundraising professionals and volunteers who run them, and the corporations, foundations and individuals who support them. For all of those whose lives are improved daily through their advocacy, November 15 is yet another day this month for us to give thanks.

Richard Beeman