Advocacy Demystified

Since the 85th Legislative Session began last week in Texas, now is the perfect time for a reminder to nonprofits to not be fearful of “lobbying” for your cause. There is a pervasive misconception that nonprofits must stick to service provision and avoid being vocal about issues that affect their service recipients.

Here are activities that are perfectly allowable:

  • Write, call, and/or email your representatives, judges, and agency officials about issues that affect your organization and your mission.
  • Alert your stakeholders of proposed legislation and which legislators have filed bills.
  • Inform your stakeholders about the pros/cons/potential consequences for your mission of proposed legislation.

There might be bills filed already that affect your service area and all nonprofits should take the time to find out. Further, you might have a staff or board member so knowledgeable about your mission work that you are called upon to provide technical expertise to a public-sector entity or legislative committee, which is not only allowable but is an opportunity to be seized to inform discourse.

In Texas, here is how to identify your representation: http://www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us/Home.aspx. A simple internet search should identify the source of similar information in other states.

Granted, the negative aura around advocacy is due to very real prohibitions. The most obvious is that nonprofits must not participate in, or intervene in, any political campaign. In other words, even if a candidate would seem to be predisposed to help your organization, you cannot campaign on behalf of that candidate or against an opponent of that candidate.

The IRS allows 501(c)(3) groups to engage in lobbying so long as it is not a “substantial part” of their activities. (https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/measuring-lobbying-substantial-part-test). There is so much that can be done without expending any monetary resources and simply writing and calling can be impactful. Legislators simply cannot be experts in all matters before them and most welcome input from those directly affected or those who endeavor to speak on behalf of affected groups.

The key is to stick to non-partisan issues. Do not let fear of sanctions keep you from doing what is perfectly within the law. Know your boundaries and then educate about and promote your mission!