Oh Yes, Nonprofits Can and Do Advocate for Legislation!

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What do clean water; vaccinations; seatbelts; public art; disaster relief; curb cuts; national parks; drunk driving penalties; family and medical leave; community reinvestment; English as a second language; job training; child labor protections; affirmative action; and affordable blood all have in common? All are the result of charities lobbying in the public interest for laws, programs, funding, and institutions that ensure quality of life for all Americans. Imagine for a moment what life would be like without each of these protections and benefits. They are just a few of the many achievements that have come from lobbying by charities at the local, state, national, and international levels.

Despite an impressive legacy of mission-related success through lobbying, many nonprofits are uncertain and even fearful of getting involved in the policymaking process. Some nonprofits believe that lobbying is unethical or inappropriate while others think it is illegal. So, let’s get two important facts straight right now. First, Lobbying by nonprofits has been and continues to be a powerful strategy for achieving mission-related goals and for fostering the civic participation that results in stronger public policy. Second, lobbying by “charities,” nonprofits exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, is legal and encouraged by Congress. This second point I will discuss later.

Lobbying is an American tradition. Throughout history lobbying by charities in the public interest has been the catalyst for government reforms that changed the course of the human condition. Shortly after the American Revolution, groups like the anti-slavery society and religious congregations used letter-writing campaigns to lobby Congress on behalf of human rights. In the mid-nineteenth century Alexis de Toqueville recognized the advocacy role of charities calling them the “moral associations where values such as charity and responsibility take root.” Early in this century, Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago, lobbied for child labor protections and urban environmental health laws. Today, charities can take credit for the enactment of many policies that protect and provide opportunities for people of all backgrounds, income levels, and political perspectives. Just last year, charities including the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association successfully lobbied to ensure that the money tobacco companies must pay to states as part of a major lawsuit settlement are being used to provide critical healthcare and education.

Lobbying strengthens democracy. It provides an opportunity for charities to serve as vehicles for participation in the policymaking process. A recent study by AARP demonstrates a correlation between civic participation and involvement with the voluntary sector. As Americans become more involved with nonprofits, they tend to become more involved in civic responsibilities and public policy matters. In the birthplace of democracy—New England—charities are nurturing the civic capacity of people and communities. The Greater Hartford Association for Retarded Citizens in Connecticut includes people with mental disabilities and their families in every facet of their public policy work. The result is more effective lobbying and empowerment for everyone involved. Alternatives for Community and the Environment in Roxbury, Massachusetts, organizes teenagers to lobby for stronger regulations against pollution. Their lobbying has resulted in reducing toxic emissions by diesel buses and fostered new friendships among neighbors.

Lobbying provides vital education and results that really help people. Staff and volunteers of charitable organizations have important expertise about community concerns that legislators need in order to make appropriate decisions about law and policy. Lobbying is a means by which to inform them about public problems and provide possible solutions. For example, when Rogerson Communities, Inc. and the Alzheimer’s Association of Eastern Massachusetts recognized that many adult day health programs for elderly persons with dementia could no longer afford the specialized staff necessary to provide a safe environment, they launched a lobbying campaign to increase state funding for their programs. Their proposed legislation saves the state over $2 million per year in potential hospital costs.

Lobbying is a leadership opportunity. As responsibility for federal programs shifts to states, cities, and counties, including welfare, health care, and community development programs, nonprofit service providers have a growing opportunity and responsibility to play a larger role in shaping the outcomes of public policy decisions. For example, the New Hampshire Cares coalition of residents and charities is lobbying the legislature to ensure that welfare block grant funds are fully used to help families reach economic independence. Most of the coalition’s members are direct service providers, and realize that as leaders in their community, lobbying can be one of most effective ways they can speak up, provide expertise, and serve their mission to help people.

Lobbying is a legal opportunity. There are two types of lobbying:  direct and grassroots. As defined by the Internal Revenue Code, direct lobbying is a communication to a legislator, staff, or employee of a legislative body that refers to a specific piece of legislation and expresses a view on that legislation. Grassroots lobbying is an attempt to influence specific legislation by urging the public to contact legislators about that legislation. For example, if a charity sends out an action alert or media ad to the general public urging them to contact their legislators about a legislative proposal, then they are engaging in grassroots lobbying. Importantly, if the same charity sends a “call to action” communication to only its chapters or members, but the communication (written, electronic, or other), does not also ask them to urge the public to make contact with legislators about a legislative proposal, this is considered direct lobbying, not grassroots lobbying.

How much lobbying is legal? Until 1976, charities were allowed to spend no more than an “insubstantial” amount of their total expenditures on lobbying as defined by the tax code. Moreover the penalty for violating the law was revocation of tax-exemption, the ultimate death penalty for charities. Unfortunately, the IRS never defined the term “insubstantial,” therefore charities were left with a vague standard to comply with and serious risks to consider. Fortunately, the legal world for lobbying by charities changed in 1976. Congress passed a new law offering charitable organizations who want to lobby a choice. Although the pre-1976 law is still in effect, the new law provides increased opportunities for lobbying and far greater legal safety because its definitions and expenses limits are clear. Those who choose the new law are no longer at risk of losing their tax exemption for a one-time violation. Instead of revocation of tax-exemption, the law provides a series of penalty taxes for violations. The new law also generously provides that charities may spend up to $1 million per year on lobbying depending upon the size of their budget. Additional benefits of the 1976 law are the exceptions to the definition of lobbying activities described previously. Such activities include contacting executive branch officials about proposed changes in regulations, testifying before the legislature when your organization has been invited to do so in writing, communicating with your members about specific legislation, conducting nonpartisan research and policy analysis, and so-called self-defense activities such as lobbying to protect nonprofit advocacy rights or tax-exemptions.

Congress passed the 1976 lobbying law to encourage nonprofit participation in the policymaking process. According to Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME), who sponsored the legislation, “these organizations can be a valuable source of information; they can broaden legislators’ understanding of proposed legislation, and they can suggest valuable legislative alternatives.” Another key supporter was then—Senator Robert Dole (R-KS). He said, for the record, “charities can be and should be important sources of information on legislative issues.”

So, you might ask, how can I take advantage of the legal opportunities to lobby under the 1976 law? It’s easy. Simply fill out IRS form 5768 (just one page) and send it in. To obtain the form and learn more about the legal opportunities for lobbying, visit the Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest Web site.

You have an important voice, vital expertise, and a historic responsibility to participate in policymaking and to help others to do so. Give voice to your heart. Be a lobbyist for your cause. It can be one of the most powerful ways you help your organization achieve its mission. n

David Arons is codirector of Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest, a project of Independent Sector in Washington, D.C., and a senior fellow at the Lincoln Filene Center for Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.