As US-based nonprofits strive to make lasting systemic change in their communities, misconceptions about advocacy and lobbying can hamper efforts. Get the facts about how your nonprofit can advocate and lobby within federal guidelines.
In light of the racial justice movement that has swept across the United States, nonprofits must evaluate how to engage with social issues and address systemic injustice. As nonprofit leaders and supporters, we are already advocating for a mission, but it can often feel difficult to make long-term changes to the legislative system that affects how we carry out our missions. The perception that nonprofits must steer clear of political advocacy stems from vague Internal Revenue Service (IRS) laws that limit the extent to which registered charitable organizations, or 501(c)(3)s, can attempt to influence legislation, commonly known as lobbying.
Nonprofit leaders are often surprised to learn that their organizations can freely participate in most advocacy activities. Want to know what is permitted for your nonprofit? Let’s look at four common myths (and facts) about advocacy and lobbying:
Fact: Not quite. Simply put, advocacy is the act of supporting a cause and is a tool to achieve social and legal change. Given the nature of their work, nonprofits are constantly engaging in advocacy. According to the Alliance for Justice, a nonprofit committed to bolstering fellow nonprofits’ advocacy efforts, “All lobbying is advocacy, but not all advocacy is lobbying.” Advocacy is considered lobbying when it attempts to influence legislation. To be classified as a form of lobbying, it must involve communication with legislators about a specific piece of legislation and express a call to action (for example, asking the public to contact an official regarding the legislation). Recognizing the distinction between advocacy and lobbying is important because the IRS limits nonprofits only in their lobbying efforts. Nonprofits should know they can participate in advocacy without feeling burdened by IRS restrictions on lobbying.
Fact: In the US, a registered charitable organization must comply with IRS policies and regulations to keep its tax-exempt status. Though these nonprofits’ lobbying activities are limited, they’re not forbidden. In fact, nonprofits are permitted to participate in some lobbying activities so long as they can pass either a substantial parts test or an expenditure test. These tests allow organizations to report permissible lobbying activities, such as hosting a non-partisan voter registration drive or distributing educational literature regarding public policy. But activities that attempt to influence legislation are off limits. IRS guidelines can help you determine whether your activities comply with nonprofit lobbying laws.
Fact: Even though the IRS limits nonprofits’ lobbying efforts, there are very few restrictions on how nonprofits can participate in other forms of advocacy. And there are so many ways to advocate! Aside from lobbying, other types of advocacy include community organizing, candidate education, nonpartisan voter education, litigation, changing corporate behaviors, and even skills training.
Fact: Nonprofits can freely engage with public policy and legislation if the intent is to educate, not influence. Though public policy and legislation are intertwined, they are different. Public policy outlines the parameters of what could lead to legislation or law. Just as too much lobbying can jeopardize a nonprofit’s tax-exempt status, there are similar cautions with public policy. Aside from activities that serve educational purposes, such as holding an information session, involvement in public policy should be limited.
Ultimately, as nonprofits, we’re all advocates. As we work to uncover new ways to fulfill our missions, it is important to continue learning about our rights and restrictions to engage in advocacy and lobbying. By understanding the variety of ways that we can advocate, we can continue working to make meaningful and lasting change.
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