Can our Nonprofit “Legally” Lobby?

Roxann Mayros headshotBy Roxann Mayros, President of VisionServe Alliance

Ashlie Benson and Kyle Hagge, Trinity Fellows at Marquette University in Milwaukee recently surveyed 78 nonprofits about lobbying activities.  Here’s what they found.  Only 60% did any kind of lobbying.  The survey authors said, “We were anticipating nonprofits facing a lot of barriers to lobbying.  … We hope nonprofits see that they can be political, it’s just that they cannot be partisan.”  Many nonprofit leaders and boards believe the tax-exempt status will be jeopardized if they engage in advocacy, lobbying, or voter registration.

To help nonprofits improve their lobbying/advocacy efforts, BoardSource, in partnership with five other organizations/foundations, created the web-site:  It provides resources and tools to create positive change through advocacy.  Stand for Your Mission challenges nonprofit decision-makers to stand up for their organizations by actively representing their mission and values, i.e., the people they serve, by creating public will for positive social change.  Stand for Your Mission provides a guidebook, training videos, templates, how-to’s, and more.  It is easy-to-use and resources are free.

Frank Martinelli of Shepherd Express listed some do’s and don’ts based on the resources from Stand for Your Mission:

These activities are allowed:

  • Educating the public and decision-makers about your work in a nonpartisan way.
  • Sharing information about how public dollars positively impact your work and your community.
  • Communicating how broader issues impact your mission and the people that you serve.

These activities are allowed as long as nonprofits carry them out in compliance within certain reasonable guidelines:

  • Voter education, registration and candidate forums.
  • Naming legislators who support (or oppose) a specific piece of legislation.
  • Limited lobbying on behalf of the organization.
  • Lobbying and campaigning as private citizens.

These activities are not allowed:

  • Organizational support for (or opposition to) a candidate or set of candidates.
  • Spending federal grant funds on lobbying.

With 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States, your mission and your message could easily get lost or not heard, effectively impacting current and potential partnerships, stronger policies, and deeper funding. This is why it is important that even the smallest organization create a formal approach to lobbying and advocacy at their local, state and federal levels.  How do you do this with limited staff and limited budgets? Think broadly – think about your board members, constituents, the people you serve, all staff (not just the Executive Director), and volunteers. Use the free resources at Stand for Your Mission, and remember … “It takes a Village.”

Does your nonprofit “lobby?” What activities do you do? Comment below.



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