Nonprofits and politics….Do they mix?

Photo by BottleLeaf

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently reported that “Nearly three-fourths of charities do some kind of advocacy or lobbying, but the vast majority of them devote less than 2 percent of their budgets to such activities, according to results of survey released today.” The large percentage of nonprofit organizations doing some form of advocacy or lobbying will be surprising to most. In fact, many nonprofits still believe that they are not allowed to get involved with politics in any way.

While 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations are not allowed to endorse political candidates, they are allowed to participate in either direct or grassroots lobbying. The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits summarizes these two forms of lobbying well:

Direct lobbying is when you state your position on specific legislation to legislators or other government employees who participate in the formulation of legislation, or urge your members to do so. In order to count as direct lobbying it must refer to specific legislation and express a view on it.

Grassroots lobbying is when you state your position on specific legislation to the general public AND ask the general public to contact legislators or other government employees who participate in the formulation of legislation. If you do not include a call to action in your communication to the general public, it is not lobbying. Urging your members to lobby counts as direct lobbying not grassroots lobbying.

You can read more about this distinction, and nonprofit lobbying and the law at the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest’s website.

So, why should nonprofits lobby? Do they really need to get involved in the political process and educate voters and candidates? The answer is YES. Nonprofits can change laws and work towards solving many of the problems their constituents face. Most of the barriers people face today could removed by simple policy changes. Public policy changes can mean that our schools are fully funded, that everyone has health insurance, and that parents can afford to pay rent and buy food for their children in same month. Look at what Mothers Against Drunk Driving has accomplished. They have convinced dozens of states to toughen their drunk driving laws. Which has resulted in lowering the number of drunk driving deaths nationwide. If you still aren’t convinced, read the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits’ 10 Reasons why you should lobby for your cause.

In the coming years, we will continue to see this shift with more and more nonprofits advocating for their causes and we will see more foundations like the Arcus Foundation , the Joyce Foundation and the Kirsch Foundation who will fund public policy work.


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