Advocacy in the Philanthropic Sector: We Can. We Should.

Jeffery ByrneJeffrey D. Byrne
President + CEO

Over a two-year (2015-2016) presidential fundraising cycle, candidates and political committees will raise an estimated $12-$15 billion. During that same time period, Americans will give an estimated $770 Billion to philanthropy!

With the 2016 election process heading into full swing, it reminds me how fortunate we are, as a nation, to enjoy the liberties we do — particularly in selecting and interacting with those who represent us in our government.

It also reminds me how vigilant we need to be about making sure our voices are heard. Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian and political writer, is credited with saying “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” I often say “You’re either at the table or on the menu.” Not as eloquent, perhaps, but it makes the point nonetheless.

With privilege comes responsibility. This holds particularly true for our philanthropic sector. Nonprofit organizations provide critical services to people across the entire socioeconomic spectrum. Yet over the last several years, our sector has come under increasing scrutiny with vocal and vehement calls for reform: ranging from added bureaucracy and oversight to threats to the charitable giving tax deduction.

So What to Do? Advocate.

Advocacy means speaking up. Making sure our government representatives understand the impact nonprofits have on people and communities is crucial. Advocacy also means awareness. Our philanthropic sector should always be in tune with how government – at every level – might affect it.

A surefire way to educate our elected officials is through grassroots activity: local citizens meeting with their local government officials on issues that impact their charitable organizations. Citizens are voting constituents – voices that are heard loud and clear.

It is important that nonprofit Boards of Directors and Staff have the knowledge necessary to take a proactive stance in educating their elected officials about their sector and their organization, and protect the interests of donors, fundraisers and charities related to laws and regulations about giving, volunteering and nonprofit operations. Elected officials need to know what matters to their constituents. If federal, state and local elected officials are not hearing from us on these important issues, then we risk them assuming their constituents are neutral on key issues impacting the nonprofit sector.

Parameters for Advocacy.

Nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations can, and often should, lobby at all levels of government. The 1976 lobbying tax law passed by Congress was followed by the IRS implementing regulations. Taken together, the law and regulations provide wide latitude for 501(c)(3) nonprofits to lobby.

Organizations can advocate in support of a particular issue (such as preserving the charitable deduction)

  • Includes supporting or opposing a specific bill
  • Includes asking colleagues and the general public to support a position
  • Includes meeting with elected officials to share information about your organization and those it serves

But advocacy CANNOT be a substantial part of the organization’s activities.

  • Use the IRS test: a variety of factors such as time devoted (by both compensated and volunteer workers) and the expenditures devoted by the organization to the activity
  • Organizations can spend 20% of the first $500,000 of annual expenditures on lobbying ($100,000), 15% of the next $500,000, and so on, up to $1 million dollars.

Nor can organizations participate in or fiscally support political campaigns for candidates in any public office.

  • Organizations are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
  • Organizations cannot give contributions to political campaign funds or make public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.

Advocacy Is a Lot Like Fundraising
I think fundraisers were born to advocate. Simply act like it’s a donor meeting and do all of the preparation and follow through you would when cultivating and soliciting a donor.

  • Prepare thoroughly and do your homework. Familiarize yourself with your elected officials: their bios, backgrounds, roles on committees and voting records
  • Schedule a meeting with the appropriate elected official to introduce yourself, your nonprofit and the services you provide to your community (aka the elected official’s district). You can find your legislators’ names and contact information here.
  • If legislation is being developed or pending, make a clear request. Carefully frame the need for supporting or opposing the proposed legislation and how it could positively or negatively impact your nonprofit and people who rely on its services.
  • Establish a relationship with the elected official that allows you to serve as a resource on issues related to your mission and the philanthropic sector. Cultivate the relationship. This means making more than one contact. Consider inviting him/her to tour your organization and meet some of your staff, donors, volunteers and those you serve (aka the legislator’s constituents who vote). This also means having the facts and data you will need to support your case at your fingertips.

There are numerous advocacy resources available to help nonprofit Boards, staff and volunteers improve their organizations and better serve their communities. Here are just a few:

  • Independent Sector. Its mission is to advance the common good by leading, strengthening and mobilizing the nonprofit and philanthropic community. A leadership network for nonprofits, foundations and corporations committed to advancing the common good, its nonpartisan coalition’s networks collectively represent tens of thousands of organizations and individuals locally, nationally and globally.
  • Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). AFP represents more than 30,000 members in more than 230 chapters around the world, working to advance philanthropy through advocacy, research, education and certification programs. AFP fosters development and growth of fundraising professionals and promotes high ethical standards in the fundraising profession.
  • National Council of Nonprofits. A network of State Associations and 25,000-plus members, this is the nation’s largest network of nonprofits, serving as a central coordinator and mobilizer to help nonprofits achieve greater collective impact in local communities across the country.
  • GovTrack.US. Tracks the United States Congress and helps Americans understand what is going on in their national legislature. GovTrack publishes the status of federal legislation and information about representatives and senators in Congress and can be used to track bills for updates or to get alerts.

Voices in the philanthropic sector – Board members, volunteers, staff and other professionals – have brought about some recent and very important advocacy victories – the permanency of three charitable giving incentives including the IRA charitable rollover and IRS withdrawal of its proposed rule on charitable gift substantiation. Advocacy works. But it’s up to all of us in the philanthropic sector to make it work.

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