Nonprofits and Lobbying

How can your organization be a tool for real change? It’s not enough to help people, you need to make sure that elected officials know the needs of their constituents. Is the legislature discussing a bill to close the Medicaid gap? If that impacts the families you work with, you need to let them know what that bill means to families who can’t get health insurance. Is Congress discussing rules that impact nonprofit organizations? They need to hear from you about the potential impacts.

Lobbying can take many forms, and you need to find what is right for you. A great way to start is to send a letter to your representative talking about an issue that is important to you. Start with a city, county or state elected official who are likely to pay attention to your comments, as they have fewer constituents. Next, ask to meet with your representative, or their staff, to talk more in depth about an issue.

You can also testify at a committee hearing or city council meeting on a topic you are knowledgeable about. I have testified twice at Nebraska Legislature agriculture committee hearings, and both times I was warmly welcomed by the committee. They listened to my testimony and asked relevant questions. The legislators often hear from the same lobbyists on a variety of issues and appreciate someone new who provides real information.

Many nonprofits still don’t know that they can lobby or how to do it correctly. Some organizations think they can’t do anything that involves pending legislation. Others have been told by their accountant or lawyer to not file for their 501(h) because it is too complicated. Finally, some organizations are afraid of losing donors. None of these things are true.

By following some simple guidelines, nonprofit organizations are free to lobby, and in fact, should lobby on behalf of their constituents. The IRS created form 5798, which allows organizations to make the 501(h) election. This short half page form allows your organization to lobby under clear rules that spell out that an organization can have up to 20% of annual expenses be for lobbying (for organizations with budgets under $500,000, different limits apply for larger organizations). The form only needs to be filed once, and is thereafter in effect for the life of the organization. Without the 501(h) election, nonprofits must meet an undefined limit of “insubstantial” spending on lobbying, so while it is still permitted, the limits are unclear.

As further evidence of why nonprofits should lobby, consider this Stanford study, which showed that organizations that lobby are far more effective for their constituents than those that don’t. Lobbying helps organizations to look at the bigger picture, and what systemic changes could improve the lives of those they serve.

Finally, some organizations are concerned that they could lose their donors if they lobby. In fact, most groups find the exact opposite to be the case. Donors appreciate them taking a strong stand and advocating on behalf of the groups they work with, as it shows a commitment to long-term change, rather than just addressing the consequences.

Start lobbying today! You’ll be making an even greater difference in the world.

Additional Resources

Coalition for a Strong Nebraska

The Coalition helps organizational leaders to be better advocates for their causes. They provide education and resources so you can advocate and lobby, and get results. Membership in the Coalition is free to Nebraska nonprofits who work on issues related to poverty and gives you access to a wealth of regular trainings, as well as legislative updates during the session.

Bolder Advocacy

Bolder Advocacy promotes active engagement in democratic processes and institutions by giving nonprofits and foundations the confidence to advocate effectively and by protecting their right to do so. Their site is full of fantastic information.

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