The truth about nonprofit advocacy

Dear Friends,

February 24th was a consequential day for the Denver community. For almost 12 hours, hundreds of homeless advocates, supporters and stakeholders testified in front of the Colorado House Committee on Local Government in support of the “Homeless Bill of Rights”. The hearing room was packed, to the point of standing room only, and another room was opened up for the overflow crowd. The passion and the testimonials were incredibly powerful and centered around the effort to end restrictive city laws throughout Colorado dealing with sleeping, camping, and criminalizing and discriminating against the homeless. After all of the testimony, the bill was defeated 6 to 5. (For a more detailed account of the events, visit

This bill has been organized by a nonprofit organization called Denver Homeless Outload (DHOL), which RMA has been involved in supporting and helping to develop. DHOL is a group of homeless persons who are fighting for their basic rights: to be treated as equal citizens and to change the way our society deals with homelessness. Part of the organization’s work is to acquire some land from the city of Denver to erect a Tiny Homes Village, so that the homeless can get out of the freezing cold of our winter and be in a safe environment, since the shelters can house only a fraction of those in need.

I am painting this picture to show you the critical role that nonprofits and NGOs play in the field of advocacy and social justice in an effort to change public policy in our country. Every progressive (and not so progressive) movement during the past 75, or so years, has come about because nonprofit organizations have mobilized and organized their constituencies to create change. This is true for a huge variety of issues ranging from the environment, workers’ rights, civil rights, children, and disability rights, etc.

I have found that many organizations still believe that you can’t lobby or you will lose your tax exempt status. This is anything but the truth. In fact, the nonprofit sector is the only sector in our society that is mandated to help fight for people’s rights and to support issues of human rights and social justice. This is not the role of the government nor of corporations. There is a provision within the IRS legislation called “scheduled H,” which the board of directors can fill out and allows organizations to spend 10% of their first $500,000 directly on public policy and lobbying around specific causes and issues. 501(c)(3) organizations cannot support a specific candidate, but it is allowed and mandated to work on changing laws, supporting referendums and other pieces of public policy.

I have included below an older Rich Tip that discusses ways that the nonprofit sector can become involved in social justice activities, to spur our thoughts about ways to engage our own organizations in advocacy work.




Pablo Eisenberg: the truth about nonprofit advocacy

Pablo Eisenberg recently gave a keynote speech for the 15th anniversary celebration of Regis University’s Masters of Nonprofit Management Program here in Denver, Colorado. As you may know, Pablo is one of the icons in the nonprofit field. He presently teaches public policy at Georgetown University and is a columnist for the Chronicle of Philanthropy; he also founded the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

During his speech, Pablo discussed some of the disturbing trends in nonprofits in terms of how we are losing billions of dollars of government support and the critical role that nonprofits have to play in making sure we are engaged and involved in public policy and advocacy. He explained that the single unique factor of the nonprofit community in the United States is the fact that nonprofits are central to the democratic process.

According to the IRS, only 1 percent of the registered nonprofits reported any involvement in advocacy and public policy (averaging $8,000 per group in expenditures on public policy) last year. This represents a woefully small number of organizations and dollars compared to the hundreds of billions that are spent by private corporations to support their causes.

Unless we as a sector start significantly engaging in public policy we will continue to lose resources. What can we do to change this? How can we become more involved? How do we mobilize our constituencies and members to support our clients, members and ourselves?

  1. View public policy as part of our missions.This is a key point that we cannot forget. Advocacy and public policy must be built into our missions and into the values of our organizations.
  2. We can’t solve major problems such as poverty, race, housing, health care, etc. through “private sector charity.”These are public policy issues and we must form a partnership with the government (where the majority of dollars come from) and mobilize our constituencies to make sure our voices are heard.
  3. We must actively vote and participate in the political process.Politicians are number counters and we need to not only vote, but express our opinions on key issues impacting our constituencies, our sector and our organizations through letters, phone calls, and emails. We need to be heard, even if we are sure the politician won’t listen.
  4. Form coalitions for added strength and power.The “John Wayne approach” to social change is not effective, especially on statewide and national issues. We need to participate in coalitions and alliances to add to our strength and power.
  5. The IRS allows and even encourages nonprofits to lobby and become involved in advocacy. It is a myth that you can’t lobby if you’re a nonprofit or are receiving government or private foundation dollars. In fact, nonprofits have historically been the advocates and protectors of our democratic process. Based on your overall expenditures, you can legally spend as much as 20 percent of your budget on direct lobbying efforts by filling out a simple IRS form called the 501(h) election. If you want to lobby all the time, you can form a separate 501(c)(4) arm to your organization.
  6. Nonprofits need to have courage to advocate for their constituencies.Frequently, nonprofits feel intimated by the legislative process, talking with the media, and testifying in front of senate committees. It’s critical that you realize you are working for what you believe in and the people you are helping. Courage is a central ingredient in true leadership.
  7. Organizations have to become involved and in touch with their constituencies and mobilize their power bases.The power that we have is the power of mobilizing our members, friends and constituencies. We need to involve them in the advocacy process and have them become engaged when we testify and make contact with politicians.
  8. We need to encourage and push our private foundations to fund advocacy. Approximately 1 percent of all private foundation dollars goes to advocacy! This must change. We can spend billions of dollars on feeding people but that will not solve the hunger problem. Advocating for system change will at least begin to solve the problem. Nonprofit leaders feel intimated by private foundations and approach the whole fundraising process with a “beggar mentality.” This has to stop. We need to be equal partners. We have to be up front with the funding community in asking them to support our advocacy efforts.
  9. Get training in community organizing and activism.There are some training institutes that offer one and two week classes in advocacy and community organizing. Some of the major ones are: Industrial Areas Foundation (Chicago), National Training and Information Center (Chicago), and Pacific Institute for Community Organization (California).
  10. It comes down to leadership.Your executive director needs to lead the advocacy and public policy effort with passion, commitment, and courage.