To Lobby or Not to Lobby?: The Nonprofit Role in Politics

Contrary to popular belief, nonprofit organizations are legally able to participate in political lobbying activities. While there are more restrictions placed on 501(c)(3) organizations than others within the political sphere, nonprofits CAN lobby. Here’s a list of do’s and don’t’s to make our political role a little bit clearer.

What kinds of lobbying are ILLEGAL for nonprofit organizations to partake in?

  • Endorse or oppose a political candidate
  • Make monetary contributions to a candidate’s campaign
  •  Make public statements about your organization’s position on an election
  • Make any kind of candidate endorsements, either in favor or opposition
  • Distribute third­ party statements that support or oppose a candidate
  • Allow one candidate to use the organization’s assets or facilities without providing equal access to the others

As a rule of thumb, nonprofits should steer clear of anything having to do with political
candidates, just to be safe.

So how CAN nonprofits lobby without losing tax-exempt status?

  • Participate in nonpartisan voter engagement efforts (This includes things like voter registration, voter education, and voter mobilization)
  • Allow candidates to appear at their facilities, so long as there are equal opportunities for all candidates, neutral organizational communications regarding the event, and a restriction on political fundraising
  • Engage in issue advocacy as long as it does not equate to political campaign intervention
  • Engage in normal business activity of the organization related to a political campaign (i.e. selling mailing lists, renting office space, paid advertising, etc.) so long as there are equal opportunities for all candidates

There are limitations on the amount of money a nonprofit organization can put toward its lobbying activities, however. For a more detailed account of these monetary restrictions, please visit the following link. There are also limitations on the number of hours a nonprofit organization can participate in lobbying activities. Generally speaking, if a nonprofit organization devotes more than 20% of its expenditures and time to lobbying activities, there is a strong chance that its tax-exempt status will be jeopardized. If the organization devotes less than 5% of its expenditures and time to lobbying activities, its tax-exempt status will probably not be affected.

If a nonprofit organization exceeds the monetary or hourly threshold, they must register as a lobbyist and report their lobbying expenses, as well as the number of hours they spent lobbying. For more information on how to register as a lobbyist and report lobbying activity, please visit the following link.

Additionally, there are a number of political activities that nonprofits can participate in that are NOT considered lobbying:

  • Providing requested technical advice on legislation to a committee
  • Distributing or making available nonpartisan analysis, studies, or research to the general public, including legislators
  • Communicating with public officials without attempting to influence legislation (i.e. discuss broad issues or organization’s activities)
  • Conducting “self­ defense” lobbying (i.e. cost of lobbying for or against legislation that has a potential to impact the existence of the organization are not considered lobbying expenses)
  • Actions and communications regarding administrative regulations
  • Lobbying by volunteers if the organization has no expenses

Lobbying is an unique part of the advocacy process. If your organization feels comfortable doing so, lobbying can become an important tool for changing and improving your community and the lives of the people you serve.