Resources from the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest:
Vote With Your Mission
Voter engagement is a critical part of nonprofit work because it empowers the people and communities we serve, and helps us further our missions. Engaging with voters makes us relevant during and after elections, helps us be part of critical public policy discussions, and allows us to weigh in on our issues. When nonprofits participate in civic engagement, they help build strong communities.
Lobbying on legislation and engaging in public policy advocacy through voter and candidate education can also be great for your organization because it can:
- Raise awareness of your mission
- Mobilize members, volunteers, donors and board
- Attract favorable media attention
- Establish and expand government investment in important social programs
- Reform laws and regulations that govern the operation and evaluation of your programs
- Confer benefits far beyond that of any one direct service program
Lobbying by 501(c)(3) nonprofits is a powerful strategy for making people’s lives better and for building stronger communities. Sometimes when people hear the word lobbying, they say, “It’s illegal for nonprofits to do” or “Lobbying is for organizations that have lots of money” or “Lobbying is for experts who are paid to know the process and have access." These statements are among the many myths about lobbying.
- Make a Difference for your Cause in Three Hours a Week - Lobbying, advocacy and playing an active role in the public policy process are not just for experts! Your organization can raise public awareness of your cause, build relationships with government and help shape laws and policies that affect its mission by dedicating at least one staff person or volunteer to spend just three hours per week doing public policy work. The following are activities a member of your team can do to make a difference.
- Finding & Using Data - Effectively using research can help you convey your position to legislators, the public, your board, funders, and members. Credible data can complement personal stories and anecdotes about your cause, thereby making your point more convincing. Gathering research and pulling out the important points that support your position, as well as points that negate the argument of those who oppose your position, will help you to gain supporters for your cause.
- Know the Legislative Process and Players: 1) A bill is introduced in at least one chamber of the legislature. 2) It is then assigned to the committee(s) that oversees the issue addressed by the bill. 3) Sometimes, a committee refers a bill to a subcommittee for deeper consideration.
- Working in Coalition - Often, one of the most powerful ways for nonprofits to engage in the public policy process is by working in coaltion with other nonprofits. Effective coalitions can amplify nonprofit voices to legislators and the public, as well as allow coalition members to share the cost of their advocacy efforts.
- Personal Visits - Legislators want to hear from you. The first time you meet your legislator face to face, you may be nervous. Keep in mind, however, that Legislators and their staff people repeatedly say that the information nonprofits provide is important to their decisions, so don't feel that you are entering the legislator's office as a supplicant.
- Presenting Testimony - Testimony can be helpful in communicating your position to legislators, so it is important to know how to give it. Legislative bodies call for public hearings for a number of reasons. They may be held to inform the public about issues or for a legislative body to get the information it needs to draft laws or to find out whether legislation is needed.
- Writing a Letter - Nonprofit organizations rely greatly on mail campaigns to persuade legislators to support the organizations' positions. Whether you are organizing a mail campaign or writing just one letter from your organization, it is important to keep in mind that the competition is stiff. More than 200,000,000 pieces of mail are sent to Congress each year, and state legislatures are bombarded as well, so give careful thought to your letter.
- Electing to Come Under the 501 (h) Test - Congress and the IRS expressed support for charitable lobbying when it enacted the 501(h) expenditure test and related regulations in 1976 and 1990, respectively. Together, the law and regulations provide generous limits and eased reporting burdens for charities that lobby. However, currently the law only provides this latitude for charities that elect to be covered by it and is not the default option. The default test, sometimes referred to as the "substantial part" test, prohibits charities from engaging in a substantial amount of lobbying and imposes a vague test with more onerous reporting burdens.
- For the vast majority of small to mid-sized 501(c)(3) nonprofits, the first thing you should do is to file the below one-page Form 5768 to elect the 501(h) test - not only because it provides generous limits on how much you can spend on lobbying, but also because it provides a very clear and helpful definition of what activities related to legislation constitute lobbying. Influential religious institutions lobbied against being covered by the 1976 lobby law, and thus were exempted and can not elect the 501(h) test.