No Such Thing As Black and White: Nonprofits and Advocacy
Very often, nonprofit organizations tow the line. They operate neither here nor there, occupying some sort of grey area in between. For many both in and out of the nonprofit world, the question of advocacy can be a bit confusing, in part because many nonprofits seek to make social change. Lobbying and other advocacy efforts can be essential parts of running a nonprofit, but how much is too much. What, even, are the rules?
The rule of thumb
Most basically, the IRS says that a nonprofit organization cannot spent a substantial part of its time trying to influence legislation. Sure, they can lobby a little bit, but, if they hope to maintain tax exempt status, they’ve got to keep an eye on it.
One person’s substantial is another person’s occasionally, which can complicate things. Ultimately though, it is up to the IRS to decide what substantial means on a case by case basis. They’ll look at time spent by staff and volunteers on lobbying efforts in addition to money, so it is best not to focus primarily on dollars. The general consensus is that lobbying efforts should not amount to more than 20 percent of an organization’s operations budget.
And, while there is some room for advocacy, nonprofits cannot participate in political campaigns either for or against a specific candidate for public office.
Some key differences
Advocacy and lobbying can be interchangeable, but there are some key differences that are important to note. As a nonprofit, you’re going to do a lot of advocating in service of your mission, which can include meeting with politicians to discuss your work. You’re going to talk to policymakers in your community about a variety of projects and initiatives which happen throughout your year.
Lobbying looks a little different. It happens in support of or opposition too specific people, pieces of legislation, regulations, etc. Frequently, nonprofit organizations fight against or for laws, proposals, initiatives, etc. Lobbying then tends to be more specific, though it can be hard to tell the difference.
Still, you’re allowed to do both--just be careful that, in advocating for your organization, you don’t cross the line.
The bottom line
There’s a lot of grey area in life, and this is one that isn’t going away. If you have questions about what your organization should or should not be doing, it helps to meet with your nonprofit accountant and even a corporate lawyer to discuss your goals and activities.
Sometimes, you’ll find that you can actually increase your presence in ways that will help you accomplish your goals--and other times, you’ll be able to stop something before you get in trouble. Before you increase or decrease your advocacy and/or lobbying efforts, seek advice from seasoned professionals--chances are, they’ll help you form a plan that is both legal and good for your organization.