AFP to Nonprofits: You can lobby policymakers. Learn how.

Caritas Refugee Advocacy Day

Most nonprofits don’t come close to the limits on how much of its resources it can spend on lobbying.

Nonprofit, charitable organizations can and should lobby policymakers, and are uniquely suited to do so, according to a group of professional fundraisers, but too many believe they are hindered by federal tax laws or they simply don’t have the capacity to do it.

To encourage more Austin nonprofits to advocate and lobby for their missions and the people they serve, the Austin chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals will host an event June 7 called “Philanthropy and Advocacy: Why Your Voice Matters.” The idea is to get nonprofits started on building relationships before the 2019 Texas Legislature is back in session.

“The reality is that policymakers are a lot like major donors,” said Amy Jackson, the director of legislative affairs for the association and a professional fundraiser for Caritas of Austin. “We have to build relationships with them to create the synergy between the work each of us does.”

In fact, charitable nonprofit groups with the IRS 501(c)3 status do have limitations on how much of its resources it can spend on lobbying, but most nonprofits don’t come close to those limits and there isn’t a precise interpretation of that tax code.

“Nonprofits opt out of policymaking not because they have to, but because they choose to out of a misunderstanding of the law or an ungrounded fear of reprisal,” said Jason Sabo, founder of Frontera Strategy, a lobbying group that works only with nonprofits and foundations. “Advocacy is not all about torches and pitchforks. Lobbying need not be adversarial.”

The law does prohibit nonprofits and churches from endorsing or financially contributing to political candidates and parties. That’s the law, called the Johnson Amendment, that President Donald Trump threatened but failed to repeal in 2017.

But Terri Broussard Williams, vice president of advocacy and government relations for the American Heart Association SouthWest, says nonprofit professionals and their supporters can influence elected officials with advocacy and lobbying.

“I feel that nonprofits have a responsibility to advocate, as well as lobby,” said Williams. “Nonprofits do important work in the communities they serve and are solving some of the most complex societal issues while protecting the needs of some of the most vulnerable.”

Though most lobbyists use money as a tool of influence, nonprofits may have an even more effective tool. “We use the power of our grassroots to influence lawmakers,” Williams said. Board members, volunteers and community members can support the advocacy and lobbying efforts of a nonprofit, she said.

Jackson, the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ event coordinator, said, “Your nonprofit can be the voice for your clients who, often because of their situations, don’t have a voice. So it becomes our job and our duty to be that voice. We should be the experts policymakers turn to, so if we can establish relationships with them, we’re going to be the ones they call.”

Learn more and purchase a ticket here: Philanthropy & Advocacy: Why Your Voice Matters

Photo: Caritas of Austin and other organizations gathered advocates to visit with legislators at Refugee Advocacy Day at the Texas State Capitol in May 2017. Photo contributed by Caritas of Austin.

NOTE: This article also appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on Sunday, May 27, 2018.
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