Approaching Your Board About Lobbying: A Blog by Pat Libby

Most of us who work for love or money — or both — on behalf of a cause, are believers. We believe we can make a difference. Whether we’re working on behalf of animals, the environment, people in need, art, science, education, or what have you, we’re committed — perhaps compelled by our ideals—to doing things that are larger than ourselves, things that make the world a better place.

Why, then, don’t we lobby? What stops us from seizing the reins of government to work with officials at the local, state, or federal level to create laws that benefit the good of society? After all, if we step into the policy arena, don’t we have a shot at creating change on a much greater scale?

The reality is that no organization starts to lobby because of some abstract notion that they “should” lobby. Organizations lobby because they feel compelled to take a stand or to take action on an issue that is critically important to the people they serve. The problem surfaces when an organization works on an issue that they know is critically important but they don’t engage in lobbying related to this issue because they’re confused about what the law allows them to do. If that’s the situation you’re in, where do you start? For many of us it seems like a proverbial tale of two types of nonprofits—those that lobby and those that don’t. So how do we become a nonprofit that moves from the sidelines into the action column?

First: Explain that lobbying is perfectly legal for nonprofits

You need to begin the conversation at the board level by explaining to the board what the issue is that you seek to impact and, what the rules are regarding nonprofits and lobbying. Since you’ve found your way to this webpage, you know that AFJ has easy-to-understand resources that explain in plain English what you CAN do as a nonprofit—and I’m assuming here that you work for a 501(c)(3).

You need your board to understand that nonprofits — particularly those that fill out that simple 501(h) form — have tremendous latitude when it comes to lobbying. It’s also important to convey to your board that study after study has demonstrated that nonprofits that engage in lobbying — including those that file the 501(h) election—are no more likely to be audited by the IRS than those that don’t.

Form a small subcommittee of the board that will agree to become the resident experts on the lobbying rules for nonprofits (you can simply assign them to do research on the Bolder Advocacy website). That committee can take the lead role in teaching others on the board what the organization can do legally. For more information on the 501h election, see AFJ fact sheet: Maximizing Your Lobbying Limit.

Second: Make the case for why lobbying will achieve the stated goal

At the same time you’re walking them through the rules, you’ll need to talk to them in a compelling manner about why it is imperative that your organization lobby for this particular cause. There are a few key things you’ll need to do to make your case. First, make sure you have facts and figures that document the extent of the problem. You might say for example, “We surveyed our clients and know that 80% of them are having this problem.”

If you haven’t taken the time to do that type of research than you’re not ready to approach your board with the issue. If you have, then next you’ll want to give them an example of how the problem is affecting an individual. If you say, “Every time this happens, Maria ends up…” that will make the problem more real for the board. Hopefully, the picture you paint will spur them to action.

I’ve written a lot more about this in The Lobbying Strategy Handbook. We’ll be printing other excerpts in the weeks to come or, you can purchase the book at a discount by using the discount code on this website.

-- Pat Libby

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