Public charities can lobby!
There is a common misconception that 501(c)(3) public charities are prohibited from lobbying, and because of this myth, many nonprofit organizations are cautious when it comes to engaging in any advocacy work.
On April 19th and 20th we hosted Bolder Advocacy, an initiative of Alliance for Justice (AFJ), to demystify the rules around advocacy and lobbying and help nonprofits understand their right to pursue policy goals.
As we are all aware, nonprofit organizations play a crucial role in elevating the voices of their communities and can be incredibly influential in promoting public policy that is supportive of those same communities.
Our reason for providing the workshops was two-fold.
- We try to be responsive to the needs of our grantees and partners. The rules that govern nonprofit participation in advocacy can be murky at times, and we heard the need for an “Advocacy & Lobbying 101.” While the grey areas will continue to exist, the workshop helped clarify some of the black and white, so nonprofits can better navigate within the grey.
- We are committed to supporting the continued development of advocacy capacity in our region. We know that policies at the city, county, state, and federal levels have incredible impact on the lives of the uninsured and underserved. HCF actively works alongside grantees and community partners to advance policies that will enhance the health of our service area.
We had a great turnout of more than 60 individuals representing 47 organizations over the two days of workshops. It was inspiring to see the wide range of advocacy expertise in the room and learn about the unique contributions that each person brings to our community. Many individuals were seasoned advocates, simply there for a refresher, and an equal number of folks were learning the rules of the game for the first time.
Regardless of comfort level with advocacy and lobbying, our intention was to help nonprofits navigate the complex rules and regulations and provide the knowledge they need continue being confident advocates.
Below is a short recap of each session. If you were unable to attend, you can find more information about advocacy regulations here.
Advocacy and Lobbying: You Can Do It!
Participants of the morning sessions walked away with a shared understanding of advocacy, a firm grasp of what might constitute lobbying under the IRS rules, and tactical ways in which to maximize lobbying limits.
Nona Randois, an experienced attorney and trusted AFJ presenter, talked through the spending limits and technicalities that curb nonprofits from spending all of their time engaged in lobbying. The default IRS language restricts lobbying to an “insubstantial part” of activities, but nonetheless allows charitable organizations to participate in the public policy process. She encouraged organizations to explore whether making the 501(h) election was right for them, which removes some of the uncertainty associated with the default lobbying test. Nona provided many, well-received legal tips and gave us a thorough overview of the practical application of IRS rules.
Nonpartisan Election Year Activity
Elections often feel like a whole different ballgame, so we spent the afternoon sessions working through what it means to be a nonpartisan organization during an election year and how to encourage civic participation via education campaigns.
Federal tax law explicitly prohibits any activity that directly or indirectly supports or opposes candidates for public office, but the law does allow public charities to engage in a wide variety of nonpartisan, election-related activities, including voter registration and education as well as ballot initiatives. Since real life examples are often the best way to learn, Nona focused a portion of the workshop on different scenarios and talked through the facts and circumstances surrounding the specific activities that would make the activity allowable (or unallowable) under IRS guidelines.