There’s a lot of confusion around whether nonprofits can participate in advocacy activities without jeopardizing their 501c3 tax-exempt status. Many organizations shy away from important advocacy opportunities because of the fear that it may land them in hot water—and instead choose to distance themselves to avoid the risk altogether, oftentimes at great detriment to their own impact.
In a presidential election year, with policy issues in the spotlight, it’s especially important that nonprofit leaders fully understand their organizational ability to engage in advocacy work. This article helps clarify what nonprofits can (and should) do when it comes to advocating for their mission.
We’re going to dig into some technical information in this post—but we’re not lawyers, and this is not legal advice. So always use your judgment and any available legal resources to decide how to proceed in your social-impact efforts.
Advocacy vs. lobbying
Let’s get clear about what’s what.
Advocacy is broad: it’s about making sure that stakeholders’ voices are heard, educating decision makers and people in power about how a particular issue or policy affects the people and communities we care about. Advocacy is not partisan, and it is not specific to a political candidate. Advocacy can include talking to the media about your impact on a particular community; telling your senator how a piece of legislation has affected their constituents; and sharing your subject matter expertise far and wide.
Lobbying is narrow: it’s about communicating directly to decision makers (lawmakers and voters) in support or opposition of a specific piece of legislation. All three components are required to meet the definition of lobbying—decision makers, actual legislation, and asking for a vote.
The Alliance for Justice explains further: “While all lobbying is advocacy, not all advocacy is lobbying. Advocacy is any action that speaks in favor of, recommends, argues for a cause, supports or defends, or pleads on behalf of others. It includes public education, regulatory work, litigation, and work before administrative bodies, lobbying, nonpartisan voter registration, nonpartisan voter education, and more.”
According to Congress and the IRS, it is legal for nonprofits to engage in both advocacy and some lobbying.
Idealist Careers sat down with Reiny Cohen, Senior Strategist for The Communications Hub at Fuse Washington, the state’s largest progressive organization creating change online, on the ground, and on issues that matter, to review some dos and don’ts around nonprofit advocacy.
Nonprofit advocacy do's
- Leverage your people-power. Clients, board members, staff, volunteers, funders and donors, family, friends, and everyone else in your sphere of influence can be called upon to help spread the word about the issue(s) you’re advocating around.
- Make it multi-modal. Write, call, and use social media to educate elected officials about how policies affect the population your nonprofit serves—not just as the entity of your nonprofit, but all the people outlined above. Fuse Washington has recently found success in hosting Twitter Town Halls, bringing legislators and advocacy organizations together to ask and answer questions that will educate the public and bring lawmaker’s attention to important issues. Check out the #AskWaLeg and #PuttingPeopleFirst hashtags on Twitter to see what they’re up to!
- Amplify the voices of real-life experience. What’s more powerful than an “expert” talking about an issue they know? An every day community member that could be you, or me, talking about how that issue has affected them directly. Of course, make sure you’re engaging in ethical storytelling when someone is using their personal experience to advance your cause.
- Find alignment with partners. There are many places where policy issues overlap across missions. Think about what causes are adjacent to yours, and coordinate with other advocates who are working on your issues. Invite nonprofits with related missions and policy issues to work with you on op-ed pieces, advocacy day activities, and calls to action. “Unite your talking points and ensure you're communicating the same message across organizations,” Reiny says.
- Cover your bases: If you’re regularly involved in lobbying as per our earlier definition, consider taking the 501(h) election to make the extent of your lobbying activities crystal clear.
Nonprofit advocacy don'ts
- Don't endorse a specific candidate. Ever. Endorsing or opposing candidates is considered “political campaign activity” which is expressly prohibited under the IRS 501c3 rules. Bottom line: nonprofits cannot engage in political campaign activity, so keep it nonpartisan and don’t favor any candidate over another.
- Don't use a battery of facts to make your argument. “Years of psychology research proves that minds aren't changed by facts, they are changed through emotional connection,” says Reiny. Make sure you’re using real life stories to change hearts and minds, not just throwing statistics around.
- Don't be intimidated! It’s common to feel a bit nervous when speaking directly with legislators. But as Reiny reminds us, “Elected officials work for you and it's their job to listen to your concerns.”
- Don't forget that it only takes one to make a difference. With so many needed changes in the world, it can seem overwhelming and even a little futile to raise your voice. It’s important to remember: “It only takes one person to start a movement. Organizing advocates for policy change is the only way to advance progress.”
And one more thing
“Promoting voting is a totally 501c3 activity, and democracy is sexy!” Reiny told us.
So voter registration efforts is an allowable activity—as long as you keep it non-partisan.
Now is a great time to remind your nonprofit staff and colleagues to register to vote. Collectively across the sector in the United States, nonprofits employ more than 10 million—yes, million—people. That’s a big chunk of voter power. Let’s use it.
Has your organization done advocacy work? Share your tips with us!
Ashley Fontaine is a writer, mental health professional, and former nonprofit executive director. She’s on a mission to eliminate “we’ve always done it that way” from our collective vocabulary by helping leaders focus on possibilities rather than limitations. She believes organizational culture is the key to productivity and staff retention.