Are Nonprofits Allowed to Advocate?
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Are Nonprofits Allowed to Advocate?

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The answer is yes!

Often, members of the aging network confuse advocacy with lobbying—then quickly shy away from any activities that might jeopardize their nonprofit status or the federal funding they receive.

But the truth is there are lots of ways nonprofits can advocate to improve policies, programs, and services for seniors—without without running afoul of any federal laws or jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.

Why does advocacy matter?

When done effectively, advocacy influences public policy by providing a conduit for individuals and organizations to voice an opinion.

These efforts can, in turn, sway public opinion, garner press coverage, and ultimately provide policymakers an opportunity to respond to constituents’ needs.

Advocacy vs. lobbying: What’s the difference?

Advocacy is the process of stakeholders making their voices heard on issues that affect their lives and the lives of others at the local, state, and national level. It also means helping policymakers find specific solutions to persistent problems. Most nonprofits can and do engage in as much advocacy as possible to achieve their goals.

Lobbying, on the other hand, involves activities that are in direct support of or opposition to a specific piece of introduced legislation. While nonprofits can engage in some lobbying, the IRS has strict rules about what portion of their budget can go toward these activities. There are also prohibitions on any use of federal funds for lobbying.

Examples of advocacy vs. lobbying

Advocacy 

  • Telling your member of Congress how a federal grant your organization received has helped your constituents.
  • Educating a member of Congress about the effects of a policy on your constituency.
  • Inviting a member of Congress to visit your organization so that he/she may see firsthand how federal funding or a policy affects day-to-day operations and the difference it makes.

Lobbying

  • Asking your member of Congress to vote for or against, or amend, introduced legislation.
  • Emailing a “call to action” to your members urging them to contact their member of Congress in support of action on introduced legislation or pending regulations.
  • Preparing materials or organizing events in support of lobbying activities.

How can you be an advocate?

You can be an advocate by educating policymakers about the needs of your organization and the people you serve. You also can organize supporters on issues of importance and educate a wider audience on your accomplishments. Some examples include:

  • Writing letters, calling, or organizing meetings to see legislators and their staff
  • Attending town hall meetings with lawmakers
  • Communicating with policymakers through social media and other methods

Keep in mind that these activities cross the line into lobbying if they call for action on introduced legislation or a pending regulation.

Effective advocacy is a mix of:

Stand up, show up, and don’t leave

Here are more tips from an effective local advocate, Chuck Ricks, executive director of Roane County Committee on Aging, Spencer, WV:

  1. Stand up: You have to stand up, leave your desk, leave your organization, and actually go to the policymakers and legislators. You can’t advocate effectively from behind your desk except for writing letters or emails.

  2. Show up: Go to your city council, county commission, state capitol, and Washington, DC. Make an appointment, and arrive on time. Hand the person your business card, have something to leave for them, be brief, stay on script, never whine, and make your goal to get a commitment.

  3. Don’t leave: Do leave the office, but don’t leave the consciousness of the person or agency. Make a lasting, positive impression and follow up your visit with a thank you letter (not email). Offer to provide data and feedback as lawmakers debate senior issues. Soon, you’ll be a familiar face, and they’ll be calling you for information.

Disclaimer: This narrative is not intended to serve as comprehensive legal guidance. State laws and private and public grant requirements create unique restrictions and opportunities for each organization. Please consult the Learn More section on page 14 of our webinar presentation for links to additional information on IRS rules for nonprofits and state and local regulations.

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