Voice of the People: Speaking Out

A web-exclusive Q&A with Assistant Professor Jennifer Mosley about the rules for lobbying and advocacy for 501(c)(3) nonprofits

Edited by Patti Wolter

SSA Assistant Professor Jennifer Mosley has spent the past seven years studying how human service organizations advocate-for themselves, their clients, and their issues. Speaking up for better government policies and programs can be a powerful tool to help the disenfranchised, but she's found that there is a lot of confusion about what constitutes advocacy and what is legal for service providers, many of which receive government funds, to engage in.

"The one thing that surprised me was the extent to which executives had different terminology and ways of talking about advocacy," Mosley says, noting that some groups were doing advocacy work and not even aware of it while others were calling their basic publicity efforts advocacy. In this Q&A, Mosley addresses some of the top misconceptions that can hold an organization back:

What is the difference between advocacy and lobbying?

The words lobbying and advocacy are often used interchangeably, but they have important legal differences. Advocacy is an umbrella term for a wide range of actions organizations use to influence government, funders, the public, and power brokers, from writing a letter to the editor to sitting on a government committee. Organizations can do as much advocacy as they want.

Lobbying has a legal definition-attempting to influence the passage of a specific piece of legislation-and is a restricted (though not prohibited) activity for 501(c)(3) nonprofits. In general, as long as you are not working to fight or promote specific legislation, then you are not lobbying. Even calls for general policy reform, when there is not a specific piece of legislation up for debate, is considered a legitimate form of advocacy.

What are the restrictions on lobbying for a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit?

There are two sets of rules that govern nonprofit 501(c)(3) lobbying. Traditionally, the IRS has stipulated that lobbying can make up "no substantial part" of the organization's activities, although what qualifies as "substantial" is not defined. This is the law that most nonprofits are governed under, but there is an alternative.

Instead of trying to decipher murky definitions, organizations can choose to take the 501 (h) election, a simple process that allows the organization to be governed under the 1976 lobbying law. Groups that take this option have a spending cap on lobbying-up to $1 million, depending on their total annual expenditures. There is no evidence that the IRS audits organizations that take the 501(h) election more than other organizations, and the benefit is that there are clear guidelines as to how much an organization may spend on lobbying and still be within the law. This is important because no matter what rule you are governed under, violating the rules comes with a severe penalty-the organization could lose its 501(c)(3) status.

Are there any special restrictions for organizations that accept government funding?

Nonprofit organizations may not use government funds for lobbying. However, they may use other funds for lobbying, providing that they follow the regulations outlined above.

Can a 501(c)(3) nonprofits endorse candidates for public office?

Nonprofits cannot be involved in electioneering-activities such as endorsing candidates, giving money to candidates, or otherwise working on behalf of a specific candidate. Nonprofits have to be nonpartisan.

Is there another way my organization can be involved in the upcoming elections?

Consider getting your client base involved in nonpartisan activities such as Get Out the Vote campaigns, which facilitate voter turnout and increasing voter participation. Such efforts make a huge contribution to democracy.

You can also help elections run more smoothly and promote accountability by allowing employees to take the day off to work as poll workers. There is currently a serious shortage of people who are willing and able to work as poll workers, leading to long lines and fewer polling places.

My organization barely has the resources to maintain our current level of service provision. How can we be involved in advocacy as well?

Ideally, we'd all have the budget to dedicate a full-time staff member to advocacy work, but in reality, tight budgets mean advocacy efforts often get tacked on to the job descriptions of already over-committed staff.

To stretch your resources to get your voice heard, consider joining an advocacy coalition that pools the efforts of several groups on important policy issues. Another option is to involve board members and volunteers. Board members may have additional personal resources they can contribute, and they are often looking for more ways to feel productive. Plus this can allow your group to tap into different volunteer skill-sets and attract new kinds of volunteers.