What is public policy advocacy?

Advocacy encompasses a wide range of activities that influence decision makers. Advocacy includes traditional activities such as litigation, lobbying, and public education. It can also include capacity building, relationship building, forming networks, and leadership development. Lobbying refers to activities that are intended to influence a specific piece of legislation.

Why should I advocate?

Nonprofit organizations play a vital role in the development and implementation of public policy to promote an informed, healthy, and strong democratic society. We witness and respond to the impact of public policies on the people we serve, whether they are patrons of the arts or residents of a homeless shelter. Few institutions are closer to the real problems of people than we are. Nonprofits can be an important bridge between policy makers and their constituents.

Effective advocacy builds your capacity to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people and communities you serve. Engaging in public policy advocacy can also raise awareness of your organization’s mission, mobilize your constituents, and attract positive media attention.

Nonprofits & Lobbying

Lobbying and advocacy are NOT interchangeable. Generally speaking, advocacy encompasses many different kinds of activities designed to promote a cause or idea. Lobbying refers to specific activities intended to influence legislation, and there are rules governing these activities.

Nonprofits—whether they are a 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4)—are allowed to engage in lobbying activities; although the rules are stricter for (c)(3) organizations. There is no limit on the amount a (c)(4) can spend on lobbying activities. However, federal law prohibits (c)(3) charitable organizations from spending a “substantial part” of their time and budget on lobbying. Unless your organization is involved in a substantial amount of lobbying, you are unlikely to come close to the financial limits.

What constitutes lobbying?

As defined by federal tax law, lobbying is any attempt to influence specific legislation. Lobbying includes 1) contacting or urging the public to contract policy makers for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation; or 2) advocating the adoption or rejection of legislation. Regulations divide lobbying into two types: direct and grassroots.

Direct lobbying is any attempt to influence legislation through communication with any member or employee of a legislative body or any other government official who may participate in the formulation of legislation.

Grassroots lobbying is any attempt to influence legislation by swaying the opinion of the general public. In this case, the organization encourages the public to lobby.

It's important to note that being engaged in public policy is not strictly about lobbying. There are many policy-related activities you can engage in that don't constitute lobbying. It only counts as lobbying when you ask a decision maker to vote for or against a specific piece of legislation. Educating decision makers and lawmakers about an issue is NOT considered lobbying; nor is hosting a public meeting or distributing a report about an issue.