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Advocacy in the Nonprofit Sector

Most nonprofits don’t engage their board and volunteers to speak to public officials about the needs of the people they serve. Read on for some simple ways to become an advocate.
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Many of the great public policy accomplishments in our nation have been spurred by nonprofits. From protecting the environment and healthcare to civil rights and car safety, nonprofit advocates have been the leading voice to advance laws that have improved life for millions.

Nonprofit organizations are uniquely positioned to shape public policy. The collective power and reach of the sector are driven by individuals with education, passion, and firsthand experience. This powerful combination allows them to influence policy strategies that address local and national problems.

Unfortunately, most organizations don’t engage their board and volunteers to speak to public officials about the needs and interests of the people they serve.

Advocacy, Lobbying, & Organizing

Advocacy is helping people understand an issue and encouraging them to become part of your base of support. In a sense, everyone who is passionate about a cause and tries to persuade others is an advocate.

Lobbying is a form of advocacy that involves asking elected officials to take a particular action or position on specific legislation.

Organizing is the act of bringing together people and institutions that support your viewpoint and efforts. Organizing helps expand the power and resources needed to drive change.

Why Advocate?

Because your work is critical and urgent. Nonprofit leaders must be a powerful voice, informing elected officials about the impact of their policies on individuals and communities.

Because you have vital information. Nonprofits have boots-on-the-ground data that few others have. Elected officials need your information (research, data, stories, etc.) to help them make informed decisions.

Because the need is too great to be silent. As an agent of community change, you must be a prominent voice to educate others about the magnitude of the issues your organization addresses.

Remember, no response is a profound response. When an organization does not respond to an important issue or pending legislative action, the lack of response is a response in itself. The implication is often that the organization 1) is unaware of the issue/pending action, 2) does not care, 3) does not know how to respond, or 4) is afraid to take a stand.

Working on the front lines gives nonprofits special insights into critical community issues. They are equalizers, bridging the gap between those who are unable to speak and individuals and entities that have the power to make change.

Policy decisions will be made with or without your input. Why would you choose to be silent?

Reluctance to Engage

It is a myth that nonprofit organizations cannot (or should not) be active in shaping public policies.

In 1976, Congress enacted statutes clarifying that 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofits may lobby, establishing generous limits, providing guidelines, and creating other benefits. Lobbying is regulated by the IRS.

The Lobby Law developed in 1976 set clear guidelines for 501(c)(3) lobbying. It requires nonprofits to file Form 5768, known as the “h election” because it refers to Section 501(h). Organizations other than private foundations, churches, and integrated auxiliaries of churches can use the following “Expenditure Test” to measure lobbying activity:

Organization’s Annual ExpendituresLobbying Limit
< $500,00020% of the exempt purpose expenditures
> $500,000 but less than $1,000,000$100,000 plus 15% of the excess of exempt purpose expenditures over $500,000
> $1,000,000 but less than $1,500,000$175,000 plus 10% of the excess of exempt purpose expenditures over $1,000,000
> $1,500,000 but less than $17,000,000$225,000 plus 5% of the exempt purpose expenditures over $1,500,000
$17,000,000 or more$1,000,000

Source: IRS,

The IRS also uses the “Insubstantial Part Test” to determine if an organization’s attempts to influence legislation constitute too much of its time. Although the IRS doesn’t provide a precise definition of “substantial,” the accepted rule by many is that charities can safely devote 3% to 5% of their overall activities toward lobbying.

The Insubstantial Part Test is the default test that applies if an organization does not make the 501(h) election.

Five Simple Ways to Be an Advocate

  1. Get to know and interact with your elected officials at all levels (not just when you need them).
  2. Monitor local, state, and federal public policy movements that could impact your mission.
  3. Organize consistent meetings or site visits with your legislators and their staff.
  4. Proactively take positions on prominent and relevant issues.
  5. Inform and empower your supporters, stakeholders, and those who care about your cause.

Before You Go Public

Taking a public position on a potentially sensitive topic requires thoughtfulness and strategy.

Be sure to study and follow the local and national laws that govern nonprofits’ lobbying and advocacy. You can’t afford to risk losing your tax-exempt status.

If you’re going to take a public stance, you must be thoroughly informed on all aspects. Take time to educate yourself on issues that could have positive or negative implications on your work.

An advocacy matrix is a simple way to score issues and determine whether to take a public position. The matrix can help you consider:

  • Which people/groups are for and against this issue or idea?
  • What are the potential consequences (positive and negative) of making our position known?
  • What are the potential consequences of remaining silent?
  • What is our position and on what information do we base this position?
  • What resources will be needed? 

Determine your goals and strategy before going public. Decide what you want to happen and the steps you plan to take to achieve those goals.

Millions of nonprofit board members, volunteers, and employees throughout the nation have the potential to improve laws and, therefore, improve the lives of the people they serve every day through advocacy.

If you’re ready to get involved, start by taking one of the most pressing problems impacting those you serve. Determine if taking a public stance will be helpful by using the matrix above. Build the relationships you need to advocate effectively and make some things happen.

Your constituency will thank you, and the reputation and value of your organization will increase.

If you have any questions or need assistance, please reach out to a professional at FORVIS or submit the Contact Us form below.

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