Advocacy vs. Lobbying

Advocacy and lobbying are effective ways for non-profits to create awareness about the impact, positive or negative, of public policy on individuals and communities.

Non-profits can and should use their knowledge and expertise in community-based issues to advocate and lobby. Many non-profit leaders, however, are concerned about losing their 501(c)(3) status if they lobby and lose a valuable opportunity to speak up themselves and those whom they serve. Following the IRS guidelines can help non-profits safely advocate and lobby on issues and policies of concern to them.

What is Advocacy?

Advocacy is educating and creating awareness among legislators and the general public of issues facing the community and the importance of aligning public policy to address the need. Advocacy does not endorse or oppose specific legislation, but rather informs the community at large how public policy decisions impact service provision.

The following activities are considered advocacy, not lobbying:

  • Providing technical assistance or advice to a legislative body or committee in response to a written request;
  • Making available nonpartisan analysis, study or research;
  • Providing examinations and discussions of broad, social, economic and similar problems;
  • Communicating with a legislative body regarding matters which might affect the existence of the organization, its powers and duties, its tax-exempt status, or the deduction of contributions to the organization (the “self-defense” exception); and
  • Updating the members of your own organization on the status of legislation, without a call to action.

Advocacy activities are not restricted for non-profits and are a great way to engage policy makers in discussions of issues facing their constituents.

advocacy lobbying graphic

What is Lobbying?

Lobbying is attempting to influence legislators to support or oppose a particular issue or piece of legislation and is allowed for non-profits within certain parameters.

  • Direct lobbying is defined as communication with a legislator, legislative staff or legislative body, or any covered executive branch or other government employee who may participate in the formulation of legislation. The communication refers to a specific piece of legislation and expresses a view on that legislation.
  • Grassroots Lobbying is defined as an attempt to influence specific legislation by encouraging the public to contact legislators about that legislation. A communication constitutes grassroots lobbying if it refers to specific legislation, reflects a view on that specific legislation and encourages the recipient of the communication to take lobbying action. This type of communication is known as a “call to action.”

Speaking Out without Losing 501(c)(3) Status

Non-profits are allowed to engage in lobbying activities, provided they do not engage in excessive lobbying or spend a certain percentage of their budget on lobbying efforts. Nonprofit charities may not engage in promoting or opposing political candidates or parties in any way or they risk losing their tax exemption. Essentially, nonprofits may not use charitable resources for partisan or political activities. Nonprofits may lobby and simply need to follow the rules for lobbying (register and report expenses, including paid staff time). Visit the IRS’s website for more information on lobbying activities or the Alliance for Justice for more information on non-profit lobbying.

Getting Started…

MCCOY is putting together a toolkit to help get you started. Stay tuned!

If your organization is considering whether or not to enter the advocacy arena, but is unsure of how or where to begin, MCCOY’s director of public policy and advocacy can provide tailored presentation to your organization’s leadership, Board of Directors or staff regarding what advocacy is, how to get involved in advocacy and understanding the legislative process.

Please contact Sarah Williams for more information.