Frank Martinelli, of The Nonprofit Repositioning Initiative, writes that more nonprofits and foundations should engage in advocacy — and the law allows them to do so.
One of the biggest mistakes nonprofit board members make is deciding not to engage in advocacy because they believe they’re prohibited by law from doing so.
This is simply not true. Advocacy is one of the most effective tools nonprofits and foundations can use to advance their mission and serve their communities. The term “advocacy” includes broader advocacy efforts, legislative lobbying and election-related activities. And the combination of advocacy and direct services can dramatically increase the mission impact of any nonprofit. Advocacy is all about your organization’s work and what it will take to advance it.
According to the Stand for Your Mission Campaign, an initiative launched by BoardSource, the premier training resource for nonprofit boards in the United States, here’s the more accurate picture for 501(c)(3) organizations:
These activities are definitely OK:
- • Educating the public and decision-makers about your work in a nonpartisan way
- • Sharing information about how public dollars positively impact your work and your community
- • Communicating how broader issues impact your mission and the people that you serve
These activities are OK as long as nonprofits carry them out in compliance with reasonable guidelines:
- • Voter education, registration and candidate forums
- • Naming legislators who support (or oppose) a specific piece of legislation
- • Limited lobbying on behalf of the organization
- • Lobbying and campaigning as private citizens
These activities are definitely not OK:
- • Organizational support or opposition of a candidate or set of candidates
- • Spending federal grant funds on lobbying
So why are so many nonprofit boards avoiding advocacy? What are the barriers to board involvement in this powerful activity? There are at least three:
We’ve already talked about the first barrier – the mistaken belief that the law doesn’t allow tax-exempt nonprofits to engage in advocacy and that their exempt status will be imperiled. The response: Provide board leaders – and sometimes their staff – with accurate information to demonstrate that advocacy is in fact allowable and that their exempt status will not be at risk.
The second barrier – the belief that advocacy is “mission drift.” The response: Demonstrate that advocacy is not mission drift if it is centered on issues that align with the mission. Also share strategies that enable nonprofits to incorporate advocacy into their work in cost-effective ways.
The third barrier – the fear of a backlash against advocacy on the part of donors, funders and some board members. Once again, this resistance sometimes arises from the mistaken belief that advocacy is not allowable. We’ve already suggested the response to this misinformation: Meet with donors, funders and board members to provide accurate information that advocacy is an allowable activity and that it will advance the mission that the donors, funders and board members presumably support.
There is another reason why there is sometimes a backlash on the part of donors, funders and some board members. And it’s a bit more complicated: At times the resistance to advocacy is the result of personal and business interests that conflict with the advocacy positions that a nonprofit might take in order to advance the mission. The response: Surface such potential conflicts of interest affecting current donors, funders or board members and seek a resolution that puts the mission first.
In the future, explain the nonprofit’s advocacy role and positions on issues to prospective supporters, stressing that advocacy helps to advance the mission that has attracted the donor or funder to the nonprofit in the first place. In terms of future board member vetting and recruitment, fully explain the nonprofit’s mission-aligned advocacy role and positions on issues.
Clearly communicate the expectations for board member involvement in advocacy, making sure that there are no potential conflicts of interest. If any exist, determine how such conflicts will be managed in keeping with the board’s conflict of interest policy, or suggest other non-board involvement opportunities.