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FAQ: Public Policy & Advocacy


Should organizations participate in nonprofit public policy advocacy?

What is the difference between advocacy and lobbying?

Who is a lobbyist?

Which laws govern lobbying by nonprofits?

Are there public policy activities that are not considered lobbying?

What is the difference between grassroots lobbying and direct lobbying?

Can a nonprofit organization lobby if it receives grant money from a foundation?

How do I plan a meeting with a public official?

May nonprofits participate in the election process?

May nonprofits endorse political candidates?

How does a nonprofit advocate through the media?

How are policy initiatives created?

What is an advocacy alliance?

How can I identify my congressional district and elected officials?

How can I track legislation in the Georgia legislature or the U.S. Congress?

Should organizations participate in nonprofit public policy advocacy?

There are at least three good reasons why nonprofits should get involved in the public-policy arena:

First, public-policy advocacy can help people and causes. Public-policy advocacy has been the key to the removal of toxic chemicals from places where children play. It has been the force behind tough penalties for batterers and drunk drivers. Public-policy advocacy has also resulted in seed funding for emerging artists, community reinvestment by major banks, computer training for disabled workers and hours of senior volunteer time helping people in communities throughout the United States.

Second, public-policy advocacy can be an excellent way to make and shape laws and policies that directly affect your mission and the many other organizations that also have related missions. Here's an example: By the Massachusetts Alzheimer's Association advocating for increased government funding for research and continuing care for persons with Alzheimer's, it not only serves its mission but helps expand support for other organizations, including community health centers, adult day health facilities and hospitals.

Third, nonprofits' involvement in public-policy advocacy is part of our responsibility to democracy. Historically, some nonprofits have been vehicles for citizen participation by having members and organizing those members, and by advocating for public-policy issues. Early temperance, peace and child-welfare organizations advocated and engaged citizens in policy-change efforts. Today, citizens participate in our democratic process by advocating for their causes with their voices, through their letters and phone calls, and through their philanthropic efforts. Nonprofits' mission-related work often fuels our democracy, renewing it and making it stronger.

Via Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest.

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What is the difference between advocacy and lobbying?

Although most people use the words interchangeably, there is a distinction between advocacy and lobbying that is helpful to understand. When nonprofit organizations advocate on their own behalf, they seek to affect some aspect of society, whether they appeal to individuals about their behavior, employers about their rules, or the government about its laws. Lobbying refers specifically to advocacy efforts that attempt to influence legislation. This distinction is helpful to keep in mind because it means that laws limiting the lobbying done by nonprofit organizations do not govern other advocacy activities.

Adapted from Lobbying and Advocacy—Similarities and Differences, published by Charity Lobbying for the Public Interest.

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Who is a lobbyist?

For [Lobbying and Disclosure Act] purposes, a lobbyist is a paid employee of the organization who: (1) Makes at least two lobbying contacts with federal legislative or executive branch officials; and (2) Spends at least 20% of his or her time on federal "lobbying activities."

Independent contractors and volunteers are not included in the LDA definition of "lobbyist." Therefore, a nonprofit organization that only retains an outside lobbyist or lobbying firm (i.e., it does not have an in-house employee who is a lobbyist) does not need to register and report under the LDA.

Exception for churches and certain affiliates: 

Churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and associations of churches that are exempt from filing the Form 990 are also exempt from registering and filing reports under the LDA. However, if a church hires an outside firm that lobbies on its behalf, that lobbying firm must report the church as a client if the monetary and contact thresholds are met.

Via Independent Sector.

For information on how to register as a lobbyist or locate a lobbyist in Georgia, visit the Web site of the State Ethics Commission.

Who is not required to register as a lobbyist?

Any person who expresses personal views, on that individual's own behalf; any officer or employee of state government; any licensed attorney appearing on behalf of a client in any adversarial proceeding, as well as any witness appearing in such a proceeding for the purpose of giving testimony; any elected official performing the official duties of their office; and any person employed or appointed by a registered lobbyist, but who is not a lobbyist as defined above.

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Which laws govern lobbying by nonprofits?

Prior to 1976, the law only allowed nonprofits to use an "insubstantial" portion of their funds on lobbying. This vague direction left nonprofits vulnerable to the interpretation of "insubstantial." In general, organizations used five percent of their budget as the rule for substantiality, but in certain situations, even expenditures on lobbying below five percent of the organization's budget were considered substantial by the IRS.

In 1976, Congress passed a law that allows organizations to fall under different regulations if they elect to do so. These new regulations are much clearer and more liberal, specifying what activities are and are not lobbying and allowing an organization to dedicate a greater percentage of their budget to lobbying, with a maximum of $1,000,000 per year. Many activities related to public policy are not considered lobbying under this law. Should my organization elect to come under the 1976 lobby law governing lobbying by charities?

Although there is no single answer that holds for every organization, the Georgia Center for Nonprofits encourages organizations that participate in lobbying to take the 501(h) election. The 1976 lobby law allows greater latitude in advocacy and lobbying activities and is easier to comply with than the vague "insubstantial" test. In addition, the IRS has confirmed that your organization will come under no additional scrutiny as a result of electing to come under the new law.

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Are there public policy activities that are not considered lobbying?

Congress has determined that there are several activities that attempt to influence legislation but are not considered lobbying for organizations that have elected to come under the 1976 lobby law. The following is a list of those activities that are not lobbying:

Contacts with executive branch employees or legislators in support of or in opposition to proposed regulations. Thus, if a nonprofit is trying to get a regulation changed, it may contact both members of the executive branch as well as legislators to urge support for its position on the regulation, and it is not considered lobbying.

Lobbying by volunteers on behalf of an organization, except for any expense incurred as a result of the lobbying. For example, if volunteers for a nonprofit could organize a huge rally of volunteers at the state capitol to lobby on an issue, only the expenses related to the rally paid by the charity would count as a lobbying expenditure.

A nonprofit's communications to its members on legislation, so long as the organization does not directly encourage its members or others to lobby. Therefore, an organization could send out a public affairs announcement to its members in which it takes a position on legislation, and it would not count as lobbying if the organization did not ask its members to take action on the measure.

A nonprofit's response to written requests from a legislative body (not just a single legislator) for technical advice on pending legislation. Thus, if requested to do so in writing, an organization could provide testimony in which it takes a position on legislation, and it would not be considered lobbying.

Self-defense activity—that is, lobbying legislators (but not the general public) on matters that may affect the organization's own existence, powers, tax-exempt status and similar matters. For example, lobbying in opposition to proposals in Congress to curtail charity lobbying or lobbying in support of a charitable tax deduction for non-itemizers would not be a lobbying expenditure. It would become lobbying only if you asked for support from the general public. Lobbying for programs in the organization's field (e.g., health, welfare, environment, education, etc.) however, is not self-defense lobbying. For example, an organization that is fighting to cure cancer could not consider working for increased appropriations for cancer research to be self-defense lobbying.

Making available the results of "nonpartisan analysis, study or research" on a legislative issue that presents a sufficiently full and fair exposition of the pertinent facts to enable the audience to form an independent opinion. The regulations make clear that such research and analysis need not be neutral or objective to fall within this nonpartisan exclusion. The exclusion applies to research and analysis that take direct positions on the merits of legislation, as long as the organization presents facts fully and fairly, makes the material generally available and does not include a direct call to the reader to contact legislators.

An organization's discussion of broad social, economic and similar policy issues whose resolution would require legislation, even if legislation on the matter is pending, so long as the discussion does not address the merits of specific legislation. For example, a session at a nonprofit's annual meeting regarding the importance of enacting child-welfare legislation would not be lobbying, so long as the organization is not addressing the merits of specific child-welfare legislation pending in the legislature. Representatives could even talk directly with legislators on the broad issue of child welfare so long as there is no reference to specific legislation on that issue.

Adapted from Public Policy Related Activities That Are Not Lobbying, published by Charity Lobbying for the Public Interest.

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What is the difference between grassroots lobbying and direct lobbying?

Grassroots lobbying is appealing to the general public to contact the legislature about an issue. Direct lobbying is contacting government officials or employees directly to influence legislation. If an issue is to be decided through a ballot initiative or referendum, appeals to the public are considered direct lobbying, because the public in this instance acts as the legislature. This is helpful to nonprofits that elect to come under the 1976 law, as they may only devote 25 percent of their total lobbying expenditures to grassroots lobbying.

Adapted from Public Policy Related Activities That Are Not Lobbying, published by Charity Lobbying for the Public Interest.

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Can a nonprofit organization lobby if it receives grant money from a foundation?

As long as the agreement between the foundation and the organization does not prohibit lobbying activity, the organization can lobby legally within limits. The rules are different for community and private foundations, so it is important to examine them separately. The organization may use general-purpose grant funds from a private foundation to lobby.

It is illegal, however, for a private foundation to make a grant earmarked for lobbying or for a nonprofit to use funds earmarked for another purpose for lobbying.

Further, a private foundation may earmark a grant for a specific project that includes lobbying, so long as the amount budgeted for non-lobbying activities is greater than the grant. Community foundations have more freedom than private ones when it comes to making lobbying grants. These foundations are subject to the same laws as other nonprofits and may make grants earmarked for lobbying, but it does count against their own lobbying limits.

Finally, both types of foundations may make grants for activities that influence public policy but are not considered lobbying under the 1976 lobby law.

Adapted from Four Important Facts about Lobbying with Foundation Grant Funds, published by Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest.

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How do I plan a meeting with a public official?

The following steps will help your nonprofit organization prepare for meetings with public officials:

Step 1: Determine what result you want from the meeting.


Step 2: Arrange the meeting.

Determine the best way to contact the official.

Decide where and when you want to meet.

Decide how you will frame your meeting request.

Step 3: Identify the players and their roles.

Determine the size of your delegation.

Determine what roles members of your group will play, such as spokesperson, person who takes notes, moderator, presenter of specific pieces of information, etc.

Step 4: Have a run-through with your delegation.

Before the meeting, go through who will say what and when, step by step, so that your presentation will be organized.

Have someone play the role of the official.

Step 5: Remember to do the following during the meeting:

Stick to your plan and explain why you need to stick to that plan if the official tries to talk about something else. Try not to let the official distract you.

Keep your presentation short and clear.

Get a commitment to something, even if the official disagrees with your position. For example, get the official to commit to reading materials that you will send to him or her.

Step 6: Remember to do the following at the close of the meeting:

Thank the official before you leave.

Clarify the topic of your next meeting and arrange a time to meet again, if necessary.

Step 7: Remember to do the following after the meeting:

With your group, jointly assess the outcome and report back to the organization quickly.

Make sure you follow up as promised.

Via Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch).

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May nonprofits participate in the election process?

501(c)(3) public charity organizations are strictly forbidden from engaging in any political activity in support of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. The IRS will consider all of the facts and circumstances surrounding an activity to determine whether the activity violates this prohibition. However, 501(c)(3) public charity organizations can engage in nonpartisan voter education activity and in a limited amount of lobbying.

501(c)(3)s may do the following:

  • Engage in limited lobbying, including work on ballot measures
  • Conduct nonpartisan public education and training sessions about participation in the political process
  • Educate all of the candidates on public interest issues
  • Publish legislative scorecards (with certain restrictions)
  • Prepare candidate questionnaires and create voter guides (with certain restrictions)
  • Canvass the public on issues
  • Sponsor candidate debates (with certain restrictions)
  • Rent, at fair market value, mailing lists and facilities to other organizations, legislators and candidates (with certain restrictions)
  • Conduct nonpartisan get-out-the-vote and voter registration drives
  • Establish a controlled 501(c)(4) organization
  • Work with all political parties to get its positions included on the party's platform (with certain restrictions)

501(c)(3)s may NOT do the following:

  • Endorse candidates for public office
  • Make any campaign contributions
  • Make expenditures on behalf of candidates
  • Restrict rental of their mailing lists and facilities to certain candidates
  • Ask candidates to sign pledges on any issue (tacit endorsement)
  • Increase the volume or amount of incumbent criticism as election time approaches
  • Publish or communicate anything that explicitly or implicitly favors or opposes a candidate

Note: This posting provides general guidelines and is intended to serve as an overview only. Because the application of law is fact-sensitive and context is critical, this information should not be relied upon as legal advice. Organizations should consult their attorneys to receive guidance on special rules governing their conduct.

From The Alliance for Justice

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May nonprofits endorse political candidates?

Individuals associated with 501(c)(3) organizations are free to endorse, support or oppose candidates, so long as it is clear they speak for themselves only and not for their organization.

The best indication of the IRS position on endorsements is contained in a press release issued by Jimmy Swaggart Ministries (JSM) in 1992. Jimmy Swaggart announced his support for Pat Robertson as a Presidential candidate at a regular JSM worship service, and he also endorsed him through JSM's official magazine. The IRS settlement with JSM stated that endorsements made by a minister at an official function or through an official publication of the religious group were an attribution to the organization. The IRS did not revoke JSM's 501(c)(3) status, but it did assess a fine of $170,000 in back taxes and interest.

In addition, the IRS also indicated that ministers or other 501(c)(3) officials may personally endorse candidates so long as they:

Do not in any way utilize the organization's financial resources, facilities or personnel, and

Clearly and unambiguously indicate that the actions taken or statements made are those of the individuals and not of the organization.

If you are on a board or a staff member of a 501(c)(3), and you support a particular candidate, the safest course is not to disclose your organizational identification.

Excerpted from The Rules of the Game: An Election Year Legal Guide for Nonprofit Organizations by Gregory L. Colvin and Lowell Finley, published by the Alliance for Justice.

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How does a nonprofit advocate through the media?

Strategic media advocacy is an important extension of the strategic communication that you do when you lobby. Media coverage expands your ability to reach key audiences—the general public, people who are affected by your issue, and elected officials and their staff. Although strategic use of media is a specialty unto itself and there is a wealth of publications on the topic, you can accomplish your advocacy goals by following a few principals:

Be Media Ready

Put someone in charge of media relations. Aim for clear designation of board and staff responsibility for media work. Identify one person to act as media specialist. This person can facilitate communications with the media and maintain internal systems for media advocacy. Official spokespersons may be chosen based on issues and expertise, but for every lobbying issue it is important to determine who will speak for the organization in various situations.

Build relationships with key media people. The media specialist should establish and maintain lists of news media in the area. Identify key editors, reporters, and columnists who cover your issues, e.g., some newspapers have a reporter who specializes in health care issues. 

Keep their phone numbers, records of conversations with them, and clippings of past coverage. Read, watch, or listen to their news coverage. Talk to them. But always assume when talking to a reporter that you are "on the record"; don't say anything you wouldn't want to see in print or hear on the air.

Clarify your Position, Goals and Audiences

Effective media advocacy requires that you be clear about your position, what you want to accomplish through the media, and the audiences you want to influence. Elected officials have a keen interest in what their local newspapers, radio stations, TV stations and political commentators are saying about issues. Using local media is a good way to get their attention for your issue and demonstrate that it matters to their community.

Know your position, goals and key messages

  • Know the community need and the proposed solution. Background information is important to reporters; even if they don't print it, it will help them formulate their stories. 
  • Know the point you want to make (your position). This is the statement of your fundamental stance about the issue.
  • Know what you want to happen as a result of your media advocacy. These are your goals. Make them specific, as in "Ten letters to the editor supporting our issue will appear over the next two weeks. We will reproduce these in large size and hand-deliver them to the heads of the appropriate senate and house committees."
  • Know how you want your position and knowledge of the need and solution to be presented. These are your key messages.
  • Know your audiences

Are you trying to reach legislators? Executive branch officials? Grassroots supporters who can influence the policymakers? List each desired audience. 

How much does each audience know about your issue and the context in which the issue is being debated? Is it a publicly well-covered issue, or a hidden one with little appeal? Tailor key messages and kinds and amount of background information to fit the audiences and the media who will reach them. 

How much complexity will your audience be willing to deal with based on its interest in the issue? Your job may be to help the media explain a complex issue in simple and straightforward ways to help people understand why they should care about it. 

Use Media That Will Accomplish Your Goals

If your organization has a person responsible for community relations or media, that person should brief you about the media and the media outlets that you can target with your message. You can also get this information by monitoring the media, asking experienced lobbyists, requesting or buying a few hours' help from a media relations firm, and contacting your state's associations of newspapers and broadcasters.

Who reaches your target audiences and how? In addition to widely known media outlets, identify the daily, weekly and specialty newspapers that reach each of your audiences. Legislators and executive branch leaders usually read clippings from their hometown or neighborhood newspapers to stay abreast of the local "play" on issues in their own districts and their constituents "take" on those issues. Editorials or letters to the editors of local papers could catch an elected official's attention. 

Which radio programs have news and feature coverage or run public service announcements? Who are the producers and hosts? Learn the kinds of coverage they favor. 

Whom do individual stations, including public television and local-access cable stations in your area, reach? What feature segments of the news or public affairs programs do they have that might want to cover your issue? Who are the producers and hosts? 

If you are working on an issue at a state legislature or city council, who are the beat reporters in all media assigned to the capitol press corps or city hall? They will be ever present in the arenas in which you are working for change, and you will want to establish good working relationships with them. 

Package your message in the most useful way to a particular medium. If you choose TV, illustrate your story visually. Radio likes interviews with "real people" that illustrate the issue. Newspapers can go into great depth. Newsletters can reach and motivate smaller but perfectly defined audiences. If the key people you need to influence can all be reached via a trade newsletter, go with the newsletter and don't waste energy on other outlets.

Adapted from "How to Advocate Through the Media," The Lobbying and Advocacy Handbook for Nonprofit Organizations, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits

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How are policy initiatives created?

It's not enough to simply react to issues with demands and counter demands. At some point, if we are serious about building community power, we must shape and initiate public policy. Below are basic steps in shaping proactive, community-generated policies.

1. Clearly Define the Problem

This requires gathering as many reports, surveys, personal observations and other resources that accurately describe the problem you wish to address. It is difficult to effectively address problems in the environment with simply an intuitive, "we see a number of youths without much to do." Know, among other things, the number of youth arrests, injuries and other incidents; what options (if any) do they have; what young people actually think about the situation; local funding issues; and the impact of corporate institutions. Another reason to have detailed information to substantiate your policy recommendation is that all legislation must be based on a finding or set of facts that provide the rationale for enacting the law. If you are interested in seeing your policy recommendations codified, then you must be prepared with the facts. Above all, be able to describe the problem clearly in ways that help your community grasp the seriousness of the problem.

2. Develop Policy Goals

All policy must be developed within the framework of your organization's purpose and long range goals. It's important to compare your organization's goals with the goal for your issue. In your assessment you should ask yourself: what constitutes victory? How will this policy address the problem/have an impact on the quality of life of your constituents/members and/or community?

Take time to assess each of the objectives you must achieve to meet your campaign goal. Examples of short-term objectives are the support of local politicians, other gatekeepers, or regulatory agencies before winning changes in local or state institutional policy. This assessment requires developing a scrupulous list of all the steps necessary to accomplish each short term objective.

3. Assess Your Ability to Undertake a Campaign to Implement These Goals

Another important consideration is your organizational health and survival. Can you win? Or perhaps more importantly, can your organization afford to lose? Advocacy campaigns can strengthen organizations by building a sense of team spirit, expanding the leadership base, deepening the leadership's level of experience and expanding an organization's membership and contact base. Of course, your organization must bring something to the campaign in the first place (e.g., membership, staff, money, reputation, facilities, press contacts, allies, etc.). Make a careful assessment of your assets as well as any liabilities you bring to the effort.

4. Assess Community Resources

As stated above, the best kind of campaigns build a sense of community and build community power. Building broad, cohesive coalitions is critical to these efforts. One way to think about coalition building is by developing a list of groups and individuals who share the different parts of the problem you'd like to address and what would each party gain from supporting the effort. Of course, these issues are not black and white. Assess each parties depth of support, what they—and you—risk by coming together, what they bring to the effort and how much effort will it take to reach them and maintain their presence in the coalition.

5. Assess Who Has the Power to Enact the Policy

Any discussion on doing advocacy would be incomplete without taking a look at who you may need to target to achieve your goal. Once you've decided what institutions or individuals have power or influence to enact your policy, then you must (through research) determine all the ways you can access and influence the process (personal contacts, media, as voters or taxpayers, freedom of information requests, etc.).

6. Develop an Action Plan

Once you've assessed your organizational and community capacity, your allies and opponents as well as the gatekeepers who have the power to enact your policy, you are ready to develop an action plan for your campaign. The actions you take should be flexible and engage your community. Make sure that your target is clear and that the policy recommendations are within their power; specific; and can be articulated in a way that is easily understood. Set time limits for certain tactics and develop an alternate plan if your original tactics are not yielding results. Also, make sure you include a plan for monitoring your target institutions and the policies once they are implemented. Above all, be tenacious and remember that changing policy means changing minds—and that takes time.

7. Evaluate Your Success

Evaluation, if done well, informs your work on an ongoing basis. Your organization should periodically review each step of your action plan to assess if it's working. Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Did we do what we said we would do?
  • What have we gained (people, resources, exposure—related and not related to your goals)?
  • What have we changed (policy, community or press relations, etc.)?
  • What still makes sense to continue?
  • What isn't working?

Use your evaluation information to make necessary changes to your action plan. Also, make sure that you just don't focus on your shortcomings. This is hard work, so take time to celebrate your achievements no matter how small they may seem.

By Makani Themba-Nixon, The Praxis Project.

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What is an advocacy alliance?

An advocacy alliance is a formal or informal partnership in which nonprofit organizations and companies work together to alter their operations, promote changes in public policies, support self-regulation, or endorse operating or ethical standards. Sometimes these relationships begin as adversarial ones that evolve into collaborative arrangements.

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How can I identify my congressional district and elected officials?

The Georgia Legislative Reapportionment Office publishes district maps that detail congressional district numbers, statistical sheets, alternative map formats, and reports.

The Georgia General Assembly provides a list of current state Senators and Representatives. Clicking on the legislators’ names will provide biographical data, committee memberships, and contact information.

To identify an individual’s state and federal legislators, use the Georgia Secretary of State’s My Voter Page tool.

Further, voting records of a government officials can are maintained and made accessible by Project Vote Smart?

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How can I track legislation in the Georgia legislature or the U.S. Congress?

State-level legislation can be monitored via the Georgia General Assembly.

Federal legislation can be tracked via the Library of Congress using THOMAS.

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