Facing key challenges in the lobbying worldIf you're new to the world of lobbying, the rules and terminology can seem hazy. What is lobbying? Are nonprofits even allowed to get involved in political campaigns? How do you participate without jeopardizing your tax-exempt status?
Here, we'll explore lobbying dos and don'ts — as well as practical steps for getting started.
Understand the terminology
It's essential to be clear about the difference between advocacy, political activity and lobbying.
Advocacy is an attempt to influence public opinion by speaking up on behalf of issues, causes or people who may not be able to speak for themselves. Nonprofits can do an unlimited amount of advocacy — on issues such as human rights, education and public service — as long as they don't cross the line into political activity.
- Reporting to lawmakers about how your programs have helped their constituents
- Educating officials about matters of public policy that affect your participants
- Inviting lawmakers to visit your organization and get a sense of your day-to-day work
Partisan political activity is strictly prohibited for nonprofits. To protect your 501(c)(3) status, take care not to endorse, contribute to or support specific political candidates or elections — in the U.S. or abroad. That said, nonprofits are allowed to advocate for issues, as long as the efforts don't constitute a substantial part of the organization's activities.
Lobbying is the attempt to influence specific legislation and policies at the local, federal or international level. Anyone can lobby on behalf of a cause or organization — common examples include senate or other confirmations, ballot initiatives, bills and resolutions. Though nonprofits aren't permitted to criticize, support or lobby for the change of a candidate's particular political positions, regular engagement with lawmakers and other legislative leaders is acceptable.
To stay in the safe zone, concentrate your lobbying efforts on the following categories:
- Challenges. Address challenges facing your participants, including lack of systemic support, resources or opportunities.
- Communication. Explain what your participants need without referencing specific legislation. Direct lobbying — which asks a representative to vote for or against legislation, amend bills or introduce legislation designed to benefit your organization — is prohibited for registered nonprofits.
- Awareness. Educate both legislators and the general public on matters of public policy that influence or shape your programs. As with direct lobbying, keep in mind that grassroots lobbying — such as encouraging people to ask their representatives to take action on a specific legislative issue, lift a particular regulation or influence a specific election result — is prohibited for registered nonprofits.
Face the challenges
Instead of trying to fight every battle, consider the following three priorities:
Protect your 501(c)(3) status
All nonprofits, particularly those working in public policy, must prioritize protection of their tax-exempt status. You can do this by periodically evaluating your organization's lobbying work to make sure you're following all the regulations. It's also important to define what constitutes "excessive lobbying" in your field, as this can quickly get you into trouble. Typically this involves events or issues that require a substantial amount of time, energy or resources.
Maintain careful records
It pays to document exactly how many hours a staff member has worked on a lobbying project or what percentage of the weekly budget is going to lobbying efforts. The key to proving that your lobbying efforts are insubstantial — and therefore legal — lies in keeping track of the specifics. Document, document, document. Keeping careful records will allow you to back up your assertions about how you're spending time and resources.
Focus on education, activities and encouragement
Some nonprofits choose to focus on educating the public about a certain issue while others provide encouragement for participants making a big change in their lives. To participate in the political process without lobbying for a partisan side, consider getting involved with nonpartisan events such as "get-out-the-vote" and voter registration drives.
In the end, it's up to each organization to determine for itself the best mix of advocacy, encouragement and participation in the political process.
Ready for more? Check out this lobbying how-to guide.
This article draws on the expertise of Grace Davies, a Minneapolis-based attorney with special interest in product liability, medical malpractice and employment discrimination.
D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center: A nonprofit's guide to lobbying and political activity (2016)
Oklahoma Policy Institute: Yes, non-profits can (and should) lobby by Tyler Parett (2016)
Center for Non-Profits: Non-profit organizations can lobby (2013)
Grassroots Advocacy Blog: Why your nonprofit should lobby lawmakers (part 1) by Abby Curcio (2016)
American Bar Association: Nonprofits and lobbying by Nayantara Mehta (2009)