Influencing legislation – or “lobbying” – is a key advocacy strategy that nonprofits can use to advance their cause. In fact, by not lobbying, many 501 (c)(3) organizations are not taking full advantage of their rights under federal tax laws, which set out generous lobbying limits.

The Internal Revenue Code defines lobbying as activities that attempt to influence specific legislation. There are two types of lobbying – direct and grassroots. Direct lobbying refers to a communication with a legislator (federal, state, local) or legislative staff member that refers to specific legislation and expresses a view on that legislation. Grassroots lobbying refers to a communication with the general public that refers to specific legislation, expresses a view on that legislation, and urges the public to contact their legislator(s). Not all communications that refer to, or even express a view about legislation, constitute lobbying.

Contrary to popular belief, nonprofits can lobby. The amount of lobbying a nonprofit organization can engage in depends on its tax-exempt status. 501(c)(3) public charities can engage in a limited, but generous, amount of lobbying; 501(c)(3) private foundations are subject to a prohibitive tax on any lobbying expenditures they make; 501(c)(4) organizations can engage in an unlimited amount of lobbying; and political organizations exempt under 527 may make very limited lobbying expenditures, but these expenditures may be subject to tax if they do not further a political purpose.

NOTE: This activity may be covered and disclosure required under federal or state lobby disclosure provisions.

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Investing in Change: A Funder's Guide to Supporting Advocacy

This book is an indispensable guide for foundations in explaining the various roles they can play in the advocacy process. Investing in Change can serve as an in-depth guide to navigating the tax code surrounding support of public charities, or a quick reference guide to answer a specific question. ...

Transition of Power: Influencing a Presidential or Gubernatorial Transition Team

Whenever a new President or Governor is elected, nonprofit organizations, including 501(c)(3) public charities, wonder how they can be involved in nominating cabinet-level, judicial and executive branch nominees, including those that require legislative confirmation. This fact sheet addresses when influencing a president’s or governor’s  transition team may be considered lobbying under the IRS rules, as well as the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) and state lobbying disclosure laws. ...

Private Foundations May Advocate

While private foundations incur a prohibitive tax when they engage in or fund lobbying, they may still engage in a variety of advocacy activities. ...

Nonprofits Can Influence the Budget Process

With budget cuts at the state and federal level showing no signs of slowing, it is vital that nonprofits speak up on behalf of their constituents and communities. This fact sheet offers tips on how your nonprofit can get involved in budget advocacy, and explains whether the organization would need to track each activity as lobbying against its lobbying limits. ...

Understanding the Lobbying Disclosure Act

Charities, foundations, unions, and 501(c)(4)s that influence federal legislation, regulations, nominations, contracts and permits need to be aware of the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), a federal law that imposes registration and reporting obligations on individuals and entities that lobby various federal officials once certain thresholds have been exceeded. This fact sheet provides an overview of the LDA and what it means for your nonprofit organization. ...

Public Foundations Can Lobby

501(c)(3) public charities, including grantmaking public charities like community foundations and women’s foundations, can lobby within the generous limits allowed by federal law. This fact sheet explains the lobbying rules for public foundations. ...

Mapping the Future: The Redistricting Process and Private Foundations

Many private foundations realize that the redistricting process presents a key opportunity to participate in the democratic process – to help ensure, among other things, that the minority vote is not diluted and that communities of interest are not unnecessarily split apart. While private foundations can safely and legally participate in the redistricting process and fund grantees that engage in this work, there is a very fine line between what a private foundation can safely do and what would be prohibited from doing or would result in a taxable expenditure. ...

Private Foundations and Social Media

Social media presents great advocacy opportunities for private foundations. This fact sheet offers tips on how private foundations can use social media platforms like Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, and Tumblr for advocacy, when social media communications cross the line into lobbying, how to ensure partisan content does not get attributed to the foundation, and how the foundation should approach making grants for social media campaigns. ...