Can 501(c)3 nonprofit board members advocate for causes that advance their missions? Yes! Can nonprofits advocate for specific candidates or endorse a political party? No! There is often confusion about what nonprofits can or cannot do in engaging with legislators and elected officials. Here are some very basic guidelines for our nonprofit friends.
Board member advocacy is mostly about education. Nonprofits can be vital in helping legislators or public officials understand a community need or the value of a vital program in the community. Collecting and distributing research, providing community survey results, or sharing personal stories related to an issue are ways for nonprofits to advocate for improvements. Furthermore, it is helpful for the most vulnerable in our community who rarely have the chance to connect with the decision-makers.
Advocacy is also the work of board members, as well as nonprofit staff. Obviously, board members often have a wide circle of influence. Making sure that everyone they know understands the mission and good work of the nonprofit can advance the cause.
Nonprofits with similar missions often band together for a legislative day at the statehouse or the city council. It’s a day when the focus is on bringing the attention of legislators and council members to the important work that is being done and the need for support. Having one-on-one conversations with public officials can bring new understanding of the need for their support. Luckily, finding just one or two champions for the cause in the legislature can result in positive change.
First, you can’t work for or against a political candidate or party. Also, you can’t lobby for the passage of a specific piece of legislation. A nonprofit can, however, do some limited lobbying. There are expenditure limits and you can’t spend most of your time and money on lobbying activities. Of course, it’s a good idea to review what the IRS has to say about nonprofits and lobbying. The National Council of Nonprofits shares some guidelines from the IRS. It’s also good to get some good advice from an attorney who specializes in nonprofit board member advocacy law.
Private foundations that are 501(c)3 organizations have some specific exceptions to the lobbying rules. Likewise, organizations that are 501(c)4, 501(c)5 or 501(c)6 have some different rules to follow. Naturally, be sure to ask your attorneys about the limitations on board member advocacy.
What all the organizations share is the ability to educate and share research with policy makers. Board members and staff can discuss the issues that affect your nonprofit and make sure that decision-makers have accurate information.
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