Nonprofits–Yes You Can Advocate. And Now’s The Time

Amidst the chaos of the past couple weeks there has been at least one positive change—a lot more people are starting to stand up and speak out about issues that […]

a poster encouraging action: "Now is the time to start"

Photo by Joanna Penn, via flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Amidst the chaos of the past couple weeks there has been at least one positive change—a lot more people are starting to stand up and speak out about issues that concern them. I have personally had people seek out my advice for their first-ever calls to legislators and spoken to many first-time protesters. Many, many, more individuals have dramatically stepped up their commitments (myself included) to call, write, show up, and be a visible presence for justice in the world. 


The nonprofit sector needs to make a similar shift, organizationally. For a long time, many of us left the advocacy to the 501(c)(4)s, to our national organizations, to the organizing groups.


We know there are some political restrictions (which are really very narrow) on 501(c)(3)s, but most of us don’t know exactly what they are, and tend to err on the side of caution, of not rocking the boat, and of not risking our funding. And when we do speak up, it’s often very carefully limited to our wheelhouse—advocating to keep the programs that fund us alive and funded, or for rule changes that let us do our jobs better.


We can’t afford to do that any longer. 


In the community development world, our constituents are overwhelmingly low income, and include people of all races, colors, and creeds. Our very reason for being is to support everyone in growing healthy communities where people can achieve their full potential. We have worked in untold communities that have been brought to life again by refugees and immigrants. We battle every day to heal the scars left by generations of legalized segregation, discrimination, and hateful violence. Even when our particular missions are specific, technical, and “not political,” they still embody a desire for justice, fairness, opportunity, and compassion.


This means that not only do we need to stand up against disastrous and inhumane funding cuts, we can not stand idly by and be silent on the bigger-picture moral crises facing our country right now, as well as the danger to its democracy.


As nonprofit organizations, we have an additional moral authority to bring to bear when we advocate as compared to people acting alone. Many of us have relationships with and access to policymakers in our official capacities that individuals do not. We have the ability to gather and share stories from our constituents to underscore the points that need making. We cannot make every cause our own, but neither can we keep our heads down and not speak on anything beyond our doors.


So in that spirit, I gave myself a refresher course on what 501(c)(3)s can and can’t do, so I could share it with all of you. I suggest you read this piece from the American Bar Association and check out the Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy site. But here’s a quick version.

  • You can not take sides for or against a candidate for election, nor engage in or use resources for any partisan activities. (Please note, despite fears to the contrary, this does not mean you cannot comment on the sitting president or his policies just because he has filed for re-election early. You can. Just do not make any commentary about the 2020 election in the process.)
  • You can make unlimited commentary about issues, both to the public and directly to legislators. This does not count as lobbying. Lobbying is only telling a legislator your opinion on specific legislation (direct lobbying) or telling the public your opinion on specific legislation while including a very specific call to action (grassroots lobbying). (Without the call to action it is not lobbying.)
  • You can lobby, as long as you don’t spend too large a percentage of your budget on doing so (either up to 5 or 20 percent of your annual expenditures depending on how you report it on your taxes, according to the American Bar Association).

While some advocates recommend that all nonprofits track their lobbying expenditures and report them (which allows the higher limit), even if you don’t do that, there are many things that are safely modest in terms of expense and time that could have a big effect:


    • Add your organization’s name to sign-on letters like this one.
    • Endorse nonpartisan events, such as interfaith vigils for fair immigration rules or responses to hate crimes in your community. Consider sending a speaker from your organization.
    • Make an appointment to visit or call your legislators, and speak up about not only the programs you work with, but also the larger context and why civil rights and a functioning democracy matter to you.
    • Register your residents, members, and clients to vote (without telling them how to vote or what party to sign up for of course), and make sure they know where.
    • Write an op-ed or letter to the editor, pass a board resolution, write an open letter in support of values that are under attack, drawing connections to your work. Look here for suggestions on messaging. Consider doing it jointly with other similar organizations.


Have you stepped up your advocacy in the face of the current political climate? Are you considering doing so? How? Let us know in the comments.


(Note: I am not a lawyer. If you are uncertain about any specific activity, please check with one, preferably one with specific knowledge in this area, as the ABA notes that many lawyers who are not very familiar with the law tend to err too far on the side of caution. There are often pro bono lawyers that specialize in this kind of advice).

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