July 30, 2015
Our small human services nonprofit has never gotten involved in politics – we’re too busy trying to keep the doors open for people in need. A new board member who is very passionate about our cause has been urging us all to get involved at the city council, the statehouse, and even with Congress. Some board members are keen to be more active politically, but most are terrified that we’ll lose our tax exemption and our funders will think we’re activists. How can I advise my board? Help!
Every piece of social legislation in the United States during the past 100 years has come about through the grassroots efforts of people and nonprofit organizations getting engaged in the political process and promoting social policy change for the betterment of our people. This is one of the unique aspects of the nonprofit sector and why we live in a democratic society. It is critical for nonprofit organizations to get involved in the policy changes that make our democratic society viable.
Contrary to the fears of many nonprofit board members, the IRS actually encourages organizations to lobby by giving them the option to take the “501 (h) election,” which sets specific financial limits on promoting issues, causes, referendums, legislation, and other pieces of public policy. This is a safe alternative to the vague “no substantial part” rule so there is no danger of losing your exemption. Roughly speaking, organizations can spend up to 20% of their first $500,000 in revenue on promoting public policy initiatives. This does not mean supporting a particular candidate, but it does mean educating the general public and working to get your values and mission in front of elected officials and administrative folks such as governors, mayors, heads of government departments and others.
The Alliance for Justice (www.afj.org) is the go-to organization for reassurance that you’re within the law, plus all the details you need on lobbying and policy issues. AJF has created “Bolder Advocacy,” an initiative with the goal to “demystify and decode advocacy by equipping organizations with knowledge and tools. We help organizations fully understand the rules and become assertive in their right to pursue their policy goals.” www.bolderadvocacy.org is a fantastic resource – I urge you to get the facts, put them in front of your board, and then encourage everyone in your organization to lobby for your cause!
P.S. Try not to worry about the foundations. A few old-fashioned ones still discourage advocacy, but others realize that by supporting nonprofits actively working to change social policy, they get a bigger bang for their grant buck!
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