Nonprofits and Lobbying: The Lobbying Strategy Handbook

“You don’t have to be a Veterinarian to own a pet and you don’t have to be a political expert to lobby,” says Pat Libby, recent author of the Lobbying Strategy Handbook and Director of the Nonprofit Institute for Research and Education.

Many nonprofits avoid lobbying and therefore lose valuable opportunities to advance our missions and our sector. Many think, “Lobbying is what they do, it isn’t what we do.”

Pat disagrees passionately. She argues that lobbying is less complicated than many nonprofits believe. It is 100% legal. And, it’s effective.

Let’s look at the legal concerns. In 1976 the IRS was asked, “How much lobbying are nonprofits allowed to do and still preserve their status as nonprofits?” The answer was, “An insubstantial amount.” But . . what exactly is an insubstantial amount? We don’t know.

However, if nonprofits file a 501(h) election, electing voluntarily to meet an expenditure test, the amount of allowed lobbying is spelled out quite clearly. Lobbying expenditures then are reported annually on the beloved 990, providing the IRS, CEO, and the Board with the peace of mind transparency brings.

Overall, this is great news:
1) If you fill out the form you get concrete answers about what the dollar limits are for nonprofit lobbying. Just remember to put tracking systems into place before you begin.
2) You don’t have to waste a lot of time on the form. In fact, if there was an award for the simplest IRS form ever invented, the 501(h) might win. It’s only two questions.

This means that your time can – and should – be spent on actual lobbying, not on forms. . . but don’t worry.

Lobbying isn’t complicated. Pat’s book offers a 10 step process for effective lobbying. These steps include everything from research, branding, coalition building, media, and – of course – working with elected officials. Most of these steps are skills the average nonprofit CEO already possesses. Pat also encourages nonprofits to ask lawmakers’ and their staff for guidance in the process. If you’re on the same side of the issue, you’re partners.

Lobbying is effective. The book provides a series of real world examples provided by students in Advocacy class taught as a part of a Master’s Degree in Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Many of her students successfully passed on legislation. Being an alumna of the MA program, I’ve met many of these former students and can vouch that they were surprised at how simple the process was despite in many cases a lack of prior experience.

Why should nonprofits lobby? Pat argues that lobbying is our democratic responsibility. As nonprofits, we have a special responsibility to our constituencies. We also have a special opportunity to mobilize the community. Remember, many organizations can and do lobby effectively. Our world is a better place for it.

This post is a part of our “Stay Tuned” blog series where I interview experts on a variety of topics. If you have a topic you’d like to see covered, please add it in the comments below.

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