Nonprofits Can Advocate and the Time is Now

Nonprofits can and must Advocate by Being Non-Partisan and Focusing on Issues

Many nonprofit organizations believe that their 501(c)3 status prevents them from being an advocate.

“But fortunately, that is not the case! “ writes Miriam Axel-Lute for a February 2, 2017 Shelterforce blog post. Of course, when advocating there are things that we can and cannot do but those rules are easy to follow.

And the Congressional Reception planned for July 2017 is the perfect opportunity to be non-partisan and focus on public policy that will end homelessness and create affordable housing.

Axel-Lute points out a very positive and recent change that many in the world of advocacy and public policy are noting. The events over the last few weeks are encouraging many of us, some of us for the first time, to email and call our elected officials.

Some of us are proving to be “visible presences” marching for the social justice issues and other causes that we believe in, attending vigils or requesting face to face meeting with those who represent us in Washington.

Writes Axel-Lute, “As nonprofit organizations, we have an additional moral authority to bring to bear when we advocate as compared to people acting alone. Many of us have relationships with and access to policymakers in our official capacities that individuals do not. We have the ability to gather and share stories from our constituents to underscore the points that need making.”

As a “refresher course” on what 501(c)3s can and here is a summary of helpful information that Axel Lute shared from the American Bar Association and the Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy site:

  • “You cannot take sides for or against a candidate for election, nor engage in or use resources for any partisan activities.
  • You *can* make unlimited commentary about issues, both to the public and directly to legislators. This does not count as lobbying. Lobbying is only telling a legislator your opinion on specific legislation (direct lobbying) or telling the public your opinion on specific legislation while including a very specific call to action (grassroots lobbying). (Without the call to action it is not lobbying.)
  • You *can* lobby, as long as you don’t spend too large a percentage of your budget on doing so.”

Continues Axel-Lute, “While some advocates recommend that all nonprofits track their lobbying expenditures and report them (which allows the higher limit), even if you don’t do that, there are many things that are safely modest in terms of expense and time that could have a big effect:

  • Add your organization’s name to sign-on letters
  • Endorse non-partisan events that such as interfaith vigils for fair immigration rules or responses to hate crimes in your community.
  • Make an appointment to visit or call your legislators, and speak up about not only the programs you work with, but also the larger context and why civil rights and a functioning democracy matter to you.
  • Register your residents, members, and clients to vote and make sure they know how and where.
  • Write an op-ed or letter to the editor, pass a board resolution, write an open letter in support of values that are under attack, drawing connections to your work. “

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute.

Nonprofits—Yes You Can Advocate. And Now’s the Time

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