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Nonprofit Voice: Advocacy and Lobbying

I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over. They … will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president.”

Barack Obama, quoted in Blueprint for Change at 17

It is a central element of American tradition that citizens come together in nonprofit organizations to give voice to the issues of their day. We gathered through the National American Woman Suffrage Association to secure women’s right to vote in 1920. We gathered through Townsend Clubs in the 1930s to get Congress to pass the Social Security Act. And we gathered through numerous nonprofits to secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Over the past 40 years, however, the federal government has imposed policies that restrict the voices of nonprofits and the people we serve. Unlike for-profit corporations, charitable nonprofits must operate under burdensome rules that limit their ability to lobby policymakers. Plus, nonprofits face severe disadvantages in securing funding for advocacy and getting their message heard. The time has come for the public and nonprofits to demand an equal voice.

Nonprofit Lobbying Restrictions

In 1976, Congress imposed an unfair burden on nonprofits by limiting our ability to communicate to the public about legislation. Nonprofits using the expenditures test may spend only 25% of their allowable lobbying expenditures to communicate with the general public, while for-profit corporations face no similar limitations. This restriction on nonprofits is fundamentally unfair. What is so threatening to democracy that a local food bank, homeless shelter, or hospice must be limited when sharing their views with fellow citizens while powerful for-profit corporations enjoy unlimited ability to espouse their opinions to the public? 

What Nonprofits Can Do

Urge Congress to eliminate this unfair burden that limits the public’s right to receive information about legislative advocacy matters from citizens who assemble through nonprofits.

Bans on Nonprofit Lobbying

Some nonprofits that accept government funds are forbidden to lobby even if they use non-governmental funds from other sources. This same limitation is not applied to for-profit corporations with federal contracts. To deny such rights to nonprofits receiving federal funding, while not imposing the same restriction on for-profit corporations, is fundamentally unfair. The democratic process is endangered and thrown off-kilter when only one group of advocates is allowed to speak.

What Nonprofits Can Do

Urge Congress to restore and protect the rights of nonprofits that receive government funding to lobby with non-government funds.

Foundation Support for Nonprofit Advocacy

In 1969, the federal government prohibited private foundations from issuing grants designated for legislative lobbying. To avoid any risk, too many foundations actively shun all advocacy-related activities, not just legislative lobbying. As recent research shows, “Many foundations take at best a ‘hands-off’ posture, and at times an actively negative one, toward policy involvement and civic engagement.” Consequently, “the resources organizations have available to devote to this increasingly important function remain highly limited. … Nonprofit organizations are entering the policy realm with one hand tied behind their backs.” See Lester Salamon, “Nonprofit America: A Force for Democracy?PDF Communiqué No. 9 of the Listening Post Project (2008)

What Nonprofits Can Do:

Urge Congress to restore the American people’s ability to amplify their voices by fully restoring foundations’ ability to promote democracy through grant making that promotes civic engagement and helps citizens come together through nonprofits for legislative lobbying.

Supreme Court Decision Further Limits the People’s Voices

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 landmark decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission PDF (No. 08-205; decided January 21, 2010), concerning the application of certain election laws to corporations, does NOT change how other laws limit the election-related activities of charitable nonprofit organizations with tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. To clear up confusion about whether charitable nonprofits can engage more or less in electioneering and elections as a result of the court’s ruling, please view the resources below:

  1. Read the National Council of Nonprofits' brief analysis
  2. Read the Alliance for Justice's fact sheet