The Role of Nonprofits in Public Policy Advocacy
by Matt Leow, Consultant, M+R Strategic Services, www.mrss.com
||The beginning of Montana’s biennial legislative session is a great time to reflect on the role of nonprofits in public policy advocacy. On January 27, MNA will hold a Nonprofit Day at the Capitol with that very subject in mind.
Those who work in the nonprofit world are often too busy serving clients and carrying out their important missions to pay much attention to the policy realm. But decisions made in Congress, state legislatures and city halls can have a profound impact on our local nonprofits and the people they serve. While some organizations make advocacy and lobbying central to their missions, others shy away from it or even believe that their organizations cannot engage in lobbying.
Right off the bat, let’s clear up that last part. Nonprofits, whether they are a 501 (c)(3) or a 501 (c)(4) organization, are allowed to engage in lobbying and advocacy – the rules just happen to be a bit tighter for 501 (c)(3) organizations. There is no limit on the amount 501 (c)(4) organizations can spend on lobbying. However, federal law prohibits 501 (c)(3), or charitable organizations, from spending a “substantial part” of their time and money on lobbying activities. That said, charitable organizations are permitted to engage in lobbying as long as they do not exceed the limit. For more information on lobbying limits for 501 (c)(3) organizations, go to http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-tege/eotopicp97.pdf. Since there a few different avenues for 501 (c)(3) organizations to take in regards to the limit on lobbying expenditures, please contact your organization’s attorney before moving forward.
But being engaged in public policy is not strictly about lobbying, a term that refers to asking a decision-maker to vote for or against a specific piece of legislation. Educating decision-makers about an issue is not considered lobbying. Organizations can hold public meetings or distribute reports and other materials to raise awareness about an issue or legislation without crossing the line and having to worry about lobbying expenditures. The IRS website has another helpful article on this area http://www.irs.gov/charities/article/0,,id=163392,00.html
Every nonprofit has a stake in public policy, whether it’s funding for social services, policies directly related to nonprofit administration or specific policies that fall under an organization’s mission. Much like individual citizens have a civic duty to be informed of our government and participate in our democracy, nonprofits have a similar duty to be engaged. Nonprofit organizations have a unique opportunity to advocate for the people they represent – their clients, members or constituency. In fact, a nonprofit often provides the only voice in the public policy arena for a specific constituency.
Spend some time in the halls of the Capitol in Helena and you will see that certain interests are well-represented (energy companies, insurance companies and the banking industry) while other interests (low-income people, the disabled, or consumers) are often represented by just one or two lobbyists. Chances are your organization has something to contribute to the public policy discussion, and may be the only voice speaking on behalf of your constituency.
But if you can’t be in Helena for the 90-day legislative session every other year, don’t consider yourself out of the game. A lot can be done in our local communities or through correspondence with decision-makers if we take the time to build those relationships. So, think about having coffee with a city council member or a local legislator, host a public forum and invite the mayor or a U.S. senator, or use the media to educate the public and decision-makers about your perspective on the issues and the important work of your organization.
And if all of this sounds exciting to you, please consider attending the MNA Nonprofit Day in Helena on Jan. 27. The day will include an afternoon workshop on this topic: Advocacy Beyond the Capitol Building. For more information, go to http://www.mtnonprofit.org/NonprofitDay/. I hope to see you there.