Yes or No: Lobbying by Nonprofits
By Liz Baumgarten
In the current climate of severe state budget crises and cuts in government services to those most in need, nonprofit participation in the public policy process has never been more important. Elected officials need to be educated about issues and solutions about which YOU are the expert. Indeed, the survival of many programs and services depends on partnering with legislators to propose policies that embody these innovative solutions -- in other words, LOBBYING. Many nonprofits (specifically, 501c3's), however, do not try to influence policymakers because they view it as intimidating, or even illegal.
Lobbying is far from illegal. It is completely legal and as simple as drafting a letter or having a short meeting with a legislator. Indeed, Congress has encouraged lobbying by nonprofits. Under a 1976 law and subsequent regulations, if a nonprofit registers as planning to lobby, it can spend up to 20 percent of its first $500,000 in annual expenditures on lobbying, 15 percent of the next $500,000, 10 percent of the next $500,000, and so on up to an expenditure of one million dollars. To take advantage of this law, you must register by filing Federal Form 5768, available online here. Even if you don't register, you can still lobby, as long as it is an "insubstantial" portion of your total activities.
There are also several examples of what ordinary people might think of as lobbying, but which are not considered lobbying by regulators, including:
Contact with government agencies and legislators regarding regulations already in place
Educating your members about pending legislation as long as you don't include a call to action
Providing testimony in response to a written request from a legislative committee
Discussing broad policy issues in newsletters and forums, so long as you don't address the pros and cons of specific legislation.
The lobby law provides generous leeway for nonprofits and its members to lobby - both directly talking to legislators and through "grassroots lobbying." An organization engages in DIRECT lobbying when it attempts to influence specific legislation by contact with legislators (or their staff). The limitations on direct lobbying expenditures are outlined above. GRASSROOTS lobbying occurs when an organization urges the public to take action on specific legislation.
In summary, nonprofit lobbying is legal and appropriate, but, most importantly, it's vital to the survival of programs and services that meet the most dire of needs. Make your voices heard to legislators and to the public-your voices are needed in the public arena in service of your mission.
Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest (CLPI) is a national nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. with materials and training about lobbying and the law. For more info visit www.clpi.org .
Original publication date: 09/15/2003
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