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Sunday, March 20, 2016

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Light Up the Phones: Mobilizing for Advocacy


It's been said that a nonprofit that is not engaged in some form of advocacy is probably not doing its job. Yet, many nonprofit leaders are scared off by the thought of “getting into politics.”

The reality is that advocating for causes and issues—whether it’s pushing for after- school arts programs for children or affordable spay and neuter programs for pets—is a critical part of fulfilling your mission and your tax-exempt purpose.

The key is to understand the difference between advocacy and lobbying.

Advocacy vs. Lobbying
An advocate’s job is to educate, explain, persuade and inform. Specifically, nonprofits use advocacy to inform policymakers and the public on how policy decisions impact the provision of services to the populations they serve.

Consider this example: “Nonprofit A” meets with their legislators during a “Day on the Hill” event at the state capitol. They spend time educating policymakers about the broad issues related to homelessness in their community. This same group then sends out a monthly informational “legislative update” email to constituents with an update on legislation related to homeless housing. 

That’s advocacy, and nonprofits are permitted to do this without limit.

By contrast, lobbying entails advocacy efforts that attempt to influence specific legislation.

So, if “Nonprofit A” decides to support a proposed bill funding housing vouchers for veterans, it would step over the line from advocacy to lobbying if it took out a full-page ad supporting that specific legislation. The final straw would be if the ad contained a call to action—such as the URL for an online petition or including the phone number and e-mail address of local legislators.

While nonprofits are certainly permitted to lobby, their lobbying activities are subject to strict limits (the IRS requires that lobbying be an “insubstantial part” of a nonprofit’s overall activities).

Harness the Troops
With a clear understanding of advocacy, nonprofits can then tap the veritable army of advocates at their disposal. If you think about it, anyone who has a dedication to your cause is a potential advocate. So yes, enlist staff, board members and volunteers. But don’t forget to also put funders, clients, vendors and friends to work!

In addition to writing letters and working the phones, your volunteer advocates can directly engage elected officials by any of these methods:

  • Arrange meetings with lawmakers to learn their views on issues of concern to your constituents
  • Invite elected officials to your nonprofit for meetings, events and even tours of your facilities and program areas
  • Send lawmakers literature on issues of importance to your constituents
  • Attend town hall meetings with lawmakers
  • Communicate with policymakers through social media

But, before you unleash the army, you’ll want to do your homework.

Read up. Be sure to learn the nuts and bolts of the legislative process. Read a book, attend a workshop or log on to a webinar.

Schedule accordingly. Try to schedule meetings with elected officials during the summer and fall when they are not tied up with the legislative calendar.

Keep in touch. Put your elected officials on your organization’s mailing list (just make sure the data is updated as elections occur).

Fulfill your reporting obligations. The good news is that there really are no specific reporting, registration or license requirements for organizations that carry out advocacy work. Of course, any expenses to carry out for those activities will need to be accounted for on your organization’s annual IRS Form 990 filing and financial accountings.

Make Your Voice Heard
With by-the-book advocacy, nonprofits can make their voices heard without putting their tax-exempt status in jeopardy. Just make sure your efforts do not endorse or oppose specific legislation—always tie your advocacy back to your organization’s mission and exempt purpose. And of course, consult your accounting and legal advisors to verify that you’re staying on the right side of the IRS.

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