by Deborah Steinkopf
Part 2 in the Public Policy & Advocacy Series

As we head into the 2012 mini session of the Oregon legislature, it’s a great time to talk about the role of nonprofits in public policy advocacy. Those who work in nonprofits are often too busy serving clients and providing community programs to focus on the public policy arena. But decisions made in Congress, state legislatures, and city halls can have a profound impact on our work and the people we serve. Some organizations make advocacy and lobbying central to their missions, while others shy away from it because of lack of understanding about lobbying rules for nonprofits.

First off, 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 a 501(c)(4) organization—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.

More information on lobbying limits for 501(c)(3) organizations is available on the IRS website. Read about how to safeguard your nonprofit’s advocacy activities by filing the 501(h) election.

Bottom line: charitable organizations are permitted to engage in lobbying as long as they do not exceed the limit.

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 contact 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 the legislation. Asking members of your organization to contact legislators about a specific piece of legislation is considered direct lobbying since they are part of your organization and presumably working on its behalf.

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. An example here is when an organization provides information to the public about a piece of legislation and directs them to contact lawmakers (a “call to action”).

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.

Why Advocate? Why Lobby?

Nonprofits are uniquely qualified to be advocates and lobbyists. 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 then we are. Nonprofits can be an important bridge between
policy makers and their constituents. Through advocacy and lobbying, nonprofits play a vital role in the development and implementation of public policy to promote an informed, healthy, and strong democratic society.

Stay tuned for more information about advocacy and public policy in future issues of this eNews.