Attention nonprofits: Lobbying is not a four-letter word!
Updated: Jan 15, 2020
Most of us who work for nonprofits are believers.
We believe we can make a difference by doing things that are larger than ourselves – things that make the world a better place.
Why, then, don’t we lobby?
What stops us from influencing critically important laws that benefit our work and society?
Can we be honest?
We all know it’s because many nonprofit leaders are intimidated by the idea of lobbying.
Some find it downright scary.
There’s all we don’t know or forgot (let’s face it– many of us snoozed through high school civics). We understand the basics of how government works, but the details are, well, foggy.
It seems so complicated. And we don’t want to look stupid.
We’re also afraid of getting our nonprofit into trouble. Our panicked brains say:
“What if we violate some rule we don’t know about or innocently misinterpret the law and the IRS takes away our tax-exempt status?!
What if our major funder finds out what we’re doing and pulls the plug?!
How can we find the time to understand the rules and explain them to our board members?!
What if they object?!”
If you have these thoughts and feelings, you’ve got plenty of company.
But at the end of the day, it really is pretty simple.
The single most important thing you need to know is this: It is 100% legal for a public charity to lobby.
Just to be clear 501 (c) (3) corporations CAN legally lobby!
So how do you become a nonprofit that moves from the sidelines into the action column?
First, learn the rules. You can go to Alliance for Justice, which has all kinds of fabulous free resources that are written in plain English, or watch this free video:
What you’ll learn is that nonprofits that fill out the stunningly simple 501 (h) form have tremendous latitude when it comes to lobbying.
Then, begin the conversation at the board level sharing what you’ve learned.
The board needs to know that study after study has demonstrated that nonprofit charities that lobby are no more likely to be audited by the IRS than those that don’t. Keep in mind, the IRS is already thin on resources and it has bigger fish to fry than your nonprofit.
Those who are alternatively skeptical or psyched can form a small subcommittee of the Board to become the resident experts on the lobbying rules and take a lead role in teaching others.
But the real reason that you’re talking to the board at all is because there is some compelling reason why lobbying fits within your mission.
And there are a few key things you’ll need to do to make your case.
1. Make sure you have facts and figures that document the extent of the problem.
You might say for example, “We surveyed our clients and know that 80% of them are having this problem (or will have this problem if this law passes).” Relate the problem to your mission or core activities.
If you haven’t taken the time to do that type of research then you’re not ready to approach your board.
2. If you have done your homework, then you’ll want to give them an example of how the problem is having an impact or could affect the people you serve or the issue you champion. Make it real so they understand why this is important.
3. Outline a simple strategy for how you plan to lobby. For example, how much time do you expect the board and staff to spend lobbying? With whom will you meet? How will you present the issues to the legislators you’re lobbying?
At a minimum, make sure you have solid relationships with every single legislative office that exists within your service area.
You should be on a hug hello basis with your city councilmember, county supervisor, state legislators and national congress people and senators who represent your district. There’s nothing wrong with beginning to build these relationships with their invaluable staff.
If they aren’t already familiar with what your nonprofit has to offer, give them a tour or go meet with them in their office – that’s a great place to start! It’s always nice to get to know them before you have to ask for something.
For more tips, see The Lobbying Strategy Handbook. It was written to help folks like you!
Most important: Don’t worry about making mistakes! Worry about the people and causes you care about and be a voice for them.
Pat Libby Consulting is a San Diego firm that offers nonprofit consulting and philanthropy consulting services. Get in touch if you are interested in guidance on lobbying, or to schedule a free consultation.