Advocacy is defined as “the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal.” So, what does this mean for charitable organizations? Charities are in a unique position when it comes to advocacy, because each and every one of them has an important cause and message to get out to the world. From spreading awareness, to amplifying the voices of a local community, engaging in advocacy can be an important part of an organization’s mission.
WHAT IS LOBBYING?
Advocacy efforts come in many shapes and sizes. Lobbying is one form of advocacy that specifically attempts to target or influence legislation. Lobbying is a powerful form of charity advocacy, but with more power comes more responsibility. Charities are allowed to lobby. However, the IRS strictly regulates the amount and type of lobbying that charities can take part in. Why? Limiting the amount of time and money 501(c)(3)s spend on lobbying ensures that charities remain focused on the delivery of their charitable purpose.
What’s the difference between advocacy and lobbying?
Just as all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares, the same is true for advocacy and lobbying. All lobbying is advocacy, but not all advocacy is lobbying.
Need a refresher on how the two are different? Lobbying targets a specific piece of legislation, while advocacy targets a broader cause or idea. In addition, the IRS does not restrict non-lobbying advocacy conducted by 501(c)(3) charities - while it does restrict lobbying activities of public charities.
THE KEY TAKEAWAY: SPREAD THE WORD WITHOUT BREAKING THE RULES
In both advocacy and lobbying initiatives, charities must strictly avoid getting involved with politics, elections and candidates, as these realms are completely off limits for 501(c)(3) public charities.
Charities can center their advocacy efforts around education. If an effort is nonpartisan and educational, it falls under the category of acceptable advocacy for a public charity.
Charities can form coalitions with other 501(c)(3)s doing similar advocacy work. These coalitions are great ways to pool resources and get a message out to broader audiences.
Charities cannot directly or indirectly participate in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to any candidate for elected public office. This includes federal, state, and local elections. charities cannot endorse or oppose any candidates - even the dog catcher!
Charities cannot demonstrate political bias or partisanship in their advocacy and lobbying efforts.
Charities cannot let lobbying constitute a substantial part of their organization’s operations.
Some Advocacy Examples, Explained:
A charity hosts a candidate forum in which it invites representatives of equal caliber from all political parties and viewpoints to discuss a particular topic.
ALLOWED: Because all views are represented, the representatives from each side are of equal caliber, and the forum is focused on a particular topic rather than on the candidates themselves, it is an educational event that is considered advocacy.
A charity produces voter education pamphlets that inform the public of issues related to an election that are factual, educational, and nonpartisan.
ALLOWED: Because the voter education pamphlets are nonpartisan and educational, they constitute an acceptable advocacy initiative for a public charity.
A charity conducts research on a particular issue or community, and publishes the results.
ALLOWED: Producing research and resources that are based on research conducted using acceptable methodologies are relevant and informative about the communities a charity serves is acceptable advocacy.
A charity partners with several other public charities to host an educational conference on a particular topic.
ALLOWED: Gathering to learn, network, and share information on a relevant topic is an educational effort, making it acceptable advocacy for a public charity.
A charity produces handouts for voters that are partisan and clearly endorse one candidate or position.
NOT ALLOWED: Charities may not engage in activities that are clearly partisan or endorse one particular candidate or position.
A charity hosts a candidate forum in which it invites a republican senator and a local democratic committee member to come and share their opinions on a particular topic.
NOT ALLOWED: Because the candidates are clearly not of equal caliber and standing, this candidate forum does not present all parties and viewpoints in an equal manner.
A charity hosts a debate for candidates in an election for public office.
NOT ALLOWED: Debates, unlike candidate forums, are not acceptable for a charity to host and participate in.