Debunking myths about nonprofits is probably one of my favorite parts of this job. There is so much misinformation being shared (and believed) by not only nonprofits themselves, but also the community at large. As citizens, board members, volunteers and donors, it is important that you are as informed and knowledgeable as possible on a few of the major misconceptions about nonprofits. In each of these sections, we will bust open a major myth and help ensure that we are all empowered to continue making a huge impact for our communities, our cities and our state.
Myth: Nonprofits cannot be involved in public policy, advocacy or lobbying.
Fact: Nonprofits can, and should, be involved in each of these activities in order to have the greatest impact.
What nonprofits cannot and should not do is endorse candidates. However, a nonprofit can spend as much as it wants on voter education and encouraging people to vote so long as it remains “nonpartisan” and does not support or oppose a candidate for elective office. It is also a myth that you can’t lobby if you’re a nonprofit or are receiving government or private foundation dollars. In fact, nonprofits have historically been the advocates and protectors of our democratic process. The nonprofit sector is the primary sector in our society that is mandated to help fight for people’s rights and to support issues of human rights and social justice.
First, let’s define the terms (knowledge is power!)
- Advocacy — Public support for, or recommendation of, a particular cause or policy.
- Public Policy — The principles, often unwritten, on which social laws are based.
- Lobbying — Seeking to influence, in this context a public official or politician, on an issue.
Federal tax laws already allow every charitable nonprofit to engage in some legislative lobbying activities. There are spending limits and technicalities that curb nonprofits from spending all of their time and money engaged in legislative lobbying, but knowing your rights ensures your organization’s participation in the public policy process. Learn more by researching what is known as the 501(h) election.
Shockingly, only 1 percent of registered nonprofits report any involvement in advocacy and public policy, spending an average of $8,000 per group, per year. While at the same time, private corporations are spending billions of dollars each year to support their causes. Unless we as a sector start significantly engaging in public policy, we will continue to lose resources. Our voice must be heard!
We must first view advocacy as part of our missions. This is a key point that we cannot forget. Our mission statement doesn’t have to specifically say “we advocate” but should be present in our thought process. The Alliance mission is to unite, strengthen and advance Arizona’s nonprofit sector. Advocacy is really part of all three of those initiatives. We can’t solve major problems such as poverty, homelessness or lack of access to healthcare through “private sector charity.” These are public policy issues, and we must form a partnership with government, where the majority of dollars come from and mobilize our constituencies to make sure our voices are heard.
An organization’s leadership, especially its board, needs to lead the advocacy and public policy effort with passion, commitment and courage. There are an estimated 20 million individuals serving in board positions at nonprofits across the U.S. who are among the most influential, dedicated and connected leaders. Advocacy is a powerful lever for real impact, but — according to BoardSource’s Leading with Intent (leadingwithintent.org) report — only 33 percent of organizations report that their board members are actively involved in advocating for their missions. And most organizations aren’t advocating at all.
It’s time to find our voice. It’s time to stand for our missions. Join us!
Ways to get involved and start the conversation:
Review the Stand for Your Mission website
Join the Alliance and participate in our Nonprofit Policy Council; click here for details