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Advocate Your Heart Out!

In today’s world, almost anything can seem politically charged and we’re seeing more and more social movements come out of some of society’s biggest issues.

Often times, nonprofits keep their mouths closed, opinions to themselves. There is a fear that any preference on an issue will quickly result in punishment of the organization’s exempt status. We’re here to shed a little light on the world of nonprofit advocacy and provide a framework for what’s permissible and what’s not.

Just as there are many different types of nonprofits, there are different rules on advocacy for each. In this article, we’ll focus on 501(c)(3) public charities and what ability they have to engage in advocacy.

First, it’s important to distinguish between “lobbying” and “advocacy”. Lobbying is defined by the IRS as “attempting to influence legislation” and 501(c)(3)’s may risk their tax-exempt status if a substantial part of it’s activities are devoted to such. The IRS goes on to explain, “A 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status. Legislation includes action by Congress, any state legislature, any local council, or similar governing body…”

Advocacy on the other hand refers to a wide variety of activities including, organizing, education, statements, voter registration, and more. Advocacy can be thought of as activities that help promote the voice of the organization with policy makers. NP Engage gives some helpful information on how to know if you’re still within the advocacy boundaries,

“The typical rule of thumb is that if you don’t explicitly call out political candidates by name, direct your advocacy toward a specific candidate for political office, or attempt to influence an election in any way, you are still engaging in 501(c)(3) advocacy in the proper way.”

Now that you know you can advocate, lets explain why we think you should. The core of almost any nonprofit mission is to enact some form of social change. Whether it’s to alleviate homelessness, decrease food insecurity, or provide resource for veterans; seeking change for society’s most pressing problems is why you do what you do. And it goes without saying that social issues are directly impacted by the political climate. In addition, the foundations for nonprofits’ very existence are vulnerable to changes in the tax code, the elimination of grants, and limitations to fundraising.

For the good of those you serve, the nonprofit sector in which you exist, and society in general it is your duty to advocate for your cause. Nonprofit Quarterly puts it best,

“Nonprofits have a fundamentally American role in helping to organize and educate the population for civic action and engagement, and indeed, to teach individuals the very basic skills of democracy itself.”

Sources: IRS. 2018. Lobbying. Hull, Will. 2016. Advocating Nonprofit Advocacy: The Myth That 501(C)(3)s Can’t Engage in Advocacy. Mason, Dyana. 2017. Yes, You Can—and Should! Nonprofit Advocacy as a Core Competency.


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