Now that election season is upon us, an interesting question came up at a meeting with several executive directors last week. Can (or should) an executive director (ED) endorse a candidate? While the consensus was that an ED should not endorse a candidate as the ED of his/her nonprofit, the views were mixed about whether or not it would be OK to endorse “personally.” The challenge for some EDs is how to extricate their personal and professional identities from each other. As the conversation progressed, everyone got clear that direct political campaign activity is strictly prohibited for nonprofits. This all led to a lively discussion about advocacy and lobbying. I shared effective strategies for advocacy in my last blog. But what about nonprofits and lobbying?
First, what is lobbying? Marcia Avner, author of Lobbying and Advocacy Handbook for Nonprofit Organizations, defines it as ” . . . a form of advocacy specifically focused to influence legislation . . . ”
Two myths about nonprofits and lobbying need to get busted!
1. Lobbying is illegal for nonprofits.
2. Lobbying is risky for nonprofits.
Neither is true. Congress actually encourages nonprofit leaders to lobby since you contribute to our democratic process when you educate legislators and urge them to support or oppose laws. The 1976 Lobby Law established that 501(c)3 nonprofits can engage in “insubstantial” lobbying and established some guidelines you can use to be clearer about what “insubstantial” can mean. It is outside the scope of this brief blog to get into more detail about the law, but I do want to point out some reasons why nonprofit executives and board members should consider lobbying.
1. It provides expertise, information and experience from your field of service for legislators who don’t have it.
2. It provides a means for people to have a voice in matters that affect them.
3. It furthers your mission!
4. It involves the community in public policy decisions.
Board members–you can be a real asset as advocates and/or by helping with lobbying. When you do, legislators and the public see your commitment to your nonprofit, find you trustworthy because you don’t have anything personally to gain, and they get an understanding of the issues from your unique perspective.
Let this election season cause you to reflect on how you can use advocacy and/or lobbying to forward the mission of the nonprofit you serve. Let us know by posting comments here what your experiences have been and the advice you have for others!