3 Advocacy Myths, Debunked

Independent Sector believes that every charitable organization should use advocacy to fulfill its mission. But we are also aware that for many organizations, the uncertainty of the rules around advocacy is often a barrier to participating in the process. To demystify the advocacy process, we wanted to debunk some myths we’ve heard in the last month and give you resources to set the record straight. In time, we strive to see every charitable organization become a lean, mean, advocacy machine.

Myth #1: Nonprofits that receive federal funds are not allowed to engage in lobbying.

False! Nonprofits that receive federal grants cannot use any portion of their federal funds to lobby, but can use other sources of funding. Per the Anti-Lobbying Act, this includes “no part of the money appropriated by any enactment of Congress.” However, private funds can be used to lobby. 501(c)(3) charitable organizations just need to make sure lobbying doesn’t make up a substantial part of their organization activity or exceed election expenditure limits. Charitable organizations’ ability to engage in advocacy is not limited.

Helpful resources can be found at the Center for Effective Government and the IRS, and if you really want to get in the weeds, read the Lobbying Disclosure Act.

Myth #2: Foundations are not allowed to engage in lobbying.

Nope. Foundations are permitted to lobby on specific legislation that threatens the existence of the foundation, its powers and duties, its tax-exempt status, or the deduction of contributions to the foundation. In addition, foundations are allowed to provide general support grants to organizations that lobby. They also are not limited in their support of other advocacy activities, like influencing regulations or educating legislators on a broad range of issues, without referencing a specific legislative proposal.

Learn more using Independent Sector’s Lobbying Guidelines for Private Foundations.

Myth #3 – The Johnson Amendment forbids charities from taking a position on social issues.

Wrong again. Tax-exempt organizations cannot take a position on a political candidate, but are permitted to take a stance on a particular issue or set of issues. The Johnson Amendment law “merely prohibits the 1.2 million charitable organizations (including foundations) from using their tax-deductible resources” to support or oppose a political candidate.

To learn more, check out this piece co-authored by IS President and CEO Dan Cardinali and Council on Foundations President and CEO Vikki Spruill. Or, check out another excellent piece summarizing the issue by NPR’s Tom Gjelten.

Do you have other advocacy myths you’d like us to debunk, or just have questions about how to better advocate? Let us know in the comments!

Types: Blog, Policy Update
Global Topics: Public Policy, Voices for Good
Policy Issues: Lobbying & Political Activity, Political Activity Rules