A Nonprofit’s Role in Advocacy

February 02, 2017

Last week, we wrote about the need to work together to create a resilient community. This week, we’ve seen an excellent example of this. On Tuesday, a collection of non-profit organizations working on issues related to immigrants, refugees, and undocumented people joined forces with religious organizations, university faculty, and the city government to speak on behalf on inclusion and tolerance.

Whether we personally agree with their position or not, we can recognize the strength that comes from different organizations coming together to work for a common cause.

But we may also ask, “Should a 501(c)3 engage in political activity? Is this the proper role of a non-profit organization?”

If advocacy furthers the mission of your organization and aligns with your overall strategy, then the answer is, “Yes.”

Some confusion arises on this point because the law prohibits a 501(c)3 from lobbying. But lobbying is a narrowly defined term. And the law leaves open a variety of options for advocacy:

“Lobbying is just one form of advocacy that an organization may engage in to achieve its particular goals and serve its constituencies. Other forms of advocacy include educating policymakers and the public about broad social issues, encouraging people to register to vote, organizing communities, educating voters about candidate positions, litigating, and many other activities. With the exception of lobbying and partisan political activities, all of the forms of advocacy listed above are unrestricted and unlimited for 501(c)(3) public charities.” – American Bar Association

Many times our constituents cannot speak for themselves in a way that will be heard and respected: children, disenfranchised or marginalized adults, animals, or the environment. In these cases, advocacy will always be an important part of our overall strategy.

We also can bump up against legislation or regulation that hinders our efforts to achieve our mission. In some cases, the threat can be egregious. In these times, advocacy may take on a more central role in our strategy.

Of course, political advocacy, particularly on the part of our constituents or our own agencies, should never erode our professionalism and our civility in engaging with those whose views may differ from ours. But the pursuit of excellence in our work may require us to knock on doors, to walk in the street, or even to raise a placard—and our voices—on behalf of our constituents and our collective vision of a healthy community.

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