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Advocacy, Lobbying, and Political Activities: Know the Rules for Nonprofits

Nonprofits are often called upon to advocate on behalf of clients, to take positions on important policy issues, or to influence the passage of proposed legislation.  Lobbying and advocacy can be critical to a 501(c)(3) organization’s mission, especially in response to real-world legal and political developments.  However, there are important rules and limitations governing what—and how much—a nonprofit can say.  Failure to abide by these rules could jeopardize your nonprofit’s tax-exempt status.

 Nonprofit advocacy exists on a spectrum of permissible and non-permissible activities.  The IRS absolutely prohibits the involvement of 501(c)(3)’s in political campaign activities, defined as participating or intervening in a candidate’s campaign for local, state, or national office.  By contrast, lobbying for or against specific legislation—either by contacting lawmakers or by issuing “calls to action” for the general public—is permissible, but cannot constitute a “substantial part” of a 501(c)(3)’s activities.  Finally, nonprofits may engage freely in nonpartisan and non-legislative issue advocacy, including both public education campaigns and campaigns targeting legislators and policymakers; however, care must be taken to ensure that these advocacy efforts do not cross the line into either lobbying or prohibited political activity.

 The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center has resources available which provide a more detailed exploration of these rules and definitions.  For example, our political activity legal alert explores the distinction between impermissible political activities and permissible advocacy activities, while our guidebook on nonprofit advocacy explores the IRS’s “substantial part” test for lobbying, including the expenditure thresholds that may be used under the 501(h) election.  This resource collection also includes a procedural guide for registering individuals that lobby the D.C. government and reporting their lobbying activities.