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Nonprofit Advocacy and COVID-19

As the number of people infected with the COVID-19 virus (referred to colloquially as the “coronavirus”) increases throughout the United States, nonprofits are playing an important role in providing services and educating impacted communities about how to reduce their exposure and what to do if symptoms appear. While matters of public health may be an opportunity for people to unite over shared challenges, historically we have experienced quite the opposite. Although viruses don’t care whether a person supports or opposes the administration in office while it infects, sickens, and kills, one only need to look back at the Reagan administration’s shocking downplaying and mishandling of the AIDS crisis  and note similar startling parallels of politicization with our current COVID-19 crisis. Compound this with the politics of an election year, and many health care nonprofits are navigating partisan politics in ways that don’t normally intersect with their life-saving advocacy work.

Stick to the Facts

Public health nonprofits are best served in their communications by relying on facts from trusted nonpartisan sources. While the issue may be politicized by elected officials, candidates, and some media outlets, that does not give nonprofits license to exceed the boundaries imposed by federal tax law. As the COVID-19 virus spreads, it’s likely to become a bigger campaign issue for many public officials. While 501(c)(3) public charities are often the most important voices on matters of public health and safety, their advocacy on issues like COVID-19 must not give the appearance of support or opposition for candidates on the ballot. If your 501(c)(3) is criticizing government officials for their response to this public health crisis, be careful to keep the election out of it. For more information on issue advocacy during election season, see the Bolder Advocacy publication The Rules of the Game.

Changing Strategic Landscape

As the number of event and conference cancellations mount and offices begin to shutter in favor of remote work, it’s important for advocates to think strategically about how this impacts their activities.

In-person lobbying and advocacy is certain to be reduced, so consider options for online advocacy as a replacement. Charities measuring their lobbying under the 501(h) election may consider shifting from a direct lobbying strategy to a public-facing grassroots lobbying strategy. However, they should be mindful that their capacity for grassroots lobbying is limited to one-fourth of their overall lobbying limit. Organizations that are rapidly exhausting their grassroots lobbying capacity might consider temporarily pursuing campaigns that do not include a call to action. This gives them the freedom to advocate aggressively on the legislation at issue, but the expenditures do not count as lobbying because the communication does not fall within the scope of the grassroots lobbying definition. For more on lobbying definitions and limits, see the Bolder Advocacy publication Being a Player.

While it is too soon to know where things may stand with this pandemic, charities and other nonprofits that were planning on attending the party conventions in July might wish to consider alternative ways to educate party leaders and delegates. Given the trends, it’s possible that the conventions may not be held in the traditional manner, so connecting with party leaders and delegates using social media and other non-contact methods of communication may have to do in a time when the needs for “social distancing” outweigh the benefits of in-person connections.

Plan for Disruption, But Stick with Your Work

Although the COVID-19 threat is real and will disrupt how nonprofit advocates were planning their work through early 2020, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. We don’t know what the ultimate impact of COVID-19 will be in our communities, but the work of nonprofit health advocates will be critical during and after the crisis. Early preparation is the best course of action for advocacy during and after the COVID-19 situation.

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