Yes, It’s OK for Your Nonprofit to Advocate

I work with several nonprofit organizations and they all say the same thing when it comes to taking policy stances that directly or indirectly favor or malign an elected official: “We worry about that because we’re worried about our funders and our tax status.”

There is no question that the invisible hand of the funders and the IRS should be considered when advancing your mission, but it should be just one of several factors when making organizational, programmatic, or policy decisions that conform to your organization’s mission.

While your organization does need to be careful and refrain from taking sides in a political campaign and may not engage in partisan activity, your 501(c)3 is on solid ground when it comes to several things. Thank you to Rooflines, the blog of the National Housing Institute, publisher of Shelterforce (full disclosure – I’m the former senior editor there), for clearly stating what must be understood at a time when the nonprofit sector is going to be critically important in not only protecting our communities but also advancing policies that will more likely than not fly in the face of President Donald Trump’s agenda.

From Rooflines:

  • You can not take sides for or against a candidate for election, nor engage in or use resources for any partisan activities. (Please note, despite fears to the contrary, this does not mean you cannot comment on the sitting president or his policies just because he has filed for re-election early. You can. Just do not make any commentary about the 2020 election in the process.)
  • You *can* make unlimited commentary about issues, both to the public and directly to legislators. This does not count as lobbying. Lobbying is only telling a legislator your opinion on specific legislation (direct lobbying) or telling the public your opinion on specific legislation while including a very specific call to action (grassroots lobbying). (Without the call to action it is not lobbying.)
  • You *can* lobby, as long as you don’t spend too large a percentage of your budget on doing so (either up to 5 or 20 percent of your annual expenditures depending on how you report it on your taxes, according to the American Bar Assocation).

The post goes on to show that there are many things nonprofits can do at a premium when it comes to both time and expense:

  • Add your organization’s name to sign-on letters like this one
  • Endorse non-partisan events, such as interfaith vigils for fair immigration rules or responses to hate crimes in your community. Consider sending a speaker from your organization.
  • Make an appointment to visit or call your legislators, and speak up about not only the programs you work with, but also the larger context and why civil rights and a functioning democracy matter to you.
  • Register your residents, members, and clients to vote (without telling them how to vote or what party to sign up for of course), and make sure they know where.
  • Write an op-ed or letter to the editor, pass a board resolution, write an open letter in support of values that are under attack, drawing connections to your work. Look here for suggestions on messaging. Consider doing it jointly with other similar organizations.

So, have at it! Don’t be coy and get to work!

Comment (1)

  1. Bill Orr

    When I first set up a non-profit in Newark we gave a $100 contribution to the campaign of a councilman. My finance guy then warned me that was a “no-no.” A lot of non-profits are squeamish on this matter, so it’s great you are explaining the “does and don’ts”
    Non-profits should take more of a leadership role.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *