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It’s okay to lobby -- really

by The NonProfit Times - May 6, 2011

Nonprofits are often reluctant if not afraid to lobby, fearing that it could jeopardize their tax-exempt status. But nonprofits can engage in advocacy and lobbying, supporting or opposing specific legislation.

In his book, “Hardball Lobbying for Nonprofits: Real advocacy for nonprofits in the new century,” Barry Hessenius offers a tutorial on building an effective nonprofit advocacy or lobbying effort, whether through 501(c)(3) lobbying, 501(c)(4) lobbying, political action committees or Section 527 organizations.

“Until real reform is effected…nonprofits, if they want to have any chance of competing for access to decision makers and influence decision making, need to play the game by the same rules that the private sector special interests do,” according to Hessenius, a former director of the California Arts Council under now former Gov. Gray Davis.

If nonprofits elect to be governed by the 1976 lobbying rules (amended in 1990), they must complete a 501(h) election form, in which the Internal Revenue Service distinguishes between direct and grassroots lobbying. Direct lobbying is when nonprofits state their position on specific legislation to legislators or others who participate in formulating legislation. Grassroots lobbying is when nonprofits state their position on specific legislation to the general public and ask them to contact legislators.

Hessenius cites five activity categories excluded from the term “influencing legislation:”

  • Self-defense;
  • Technical advice;
  • Nonpartisan analysis or research;
  • Examinations and discussions of broad, social, economic and similar problems; and,
  • Regulatory and administrative issues.


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