Reducing Anxiety When Nonprofits Use The ‘A’ Word: Advocacy

Anne Sliea

Anne Silea, Advocacy Facilitator, Lutheran Family and Children’s Services of Missouri

Many nonprofit professionals experience anxiety when the topics of advocacy or lobbying come up in conversation.

Advocacy is a close relative of lobbying. And the thought of lobbying brings images of engaging in back-room political deals. That’s not appealing for most nonprofit professionals.

But Anne Silea, Advocacy Facilitator with Lutheran Family and Children’s Services of Missouri, provided clarity on the subject of advocacy during a presentation during the Community Service Public Relations Council’s monthly luncheon on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. She also challenged nonprofits to be proactive in voicing support for their clients and their organizational missions.

Silea defined advocacy as an effort to shape public perceptions that may or may not require changes in a law. She defined lobbying as an attempt to influence specific legislation by communicating a particular view or position to a legislator.

“If nonprofits are not speaking up for their clients and the people they serve,” Silea said, “chances are no one else is speaking up for them.”

In addition to being wary of the process, some nonprofits incorrectly believe that lobbying could affect their tax-exempt status. Nonprofits that fall under 501(c)(3) status with the Internal Revenue Service are prohibited from engaging in any partisan activity, but may conduct nonpartisan voter engagement activities. Stick to the issues, ignore the candidates.

“More nonprofits are aware that they can lobby, but a lot of them don’t because they’re not comfortable with it,” Silea said.

Silea provided the following documents, published by Bolder Advocacy, with information on lobbying guidelines for 501(c)(3) nonprofits and restrictions on what other nonprofits—501(c)(4) and 527s—can engage in.

Public Charities Can Lobby; Guidelines for 501(c)(3) Public Charities (PDF)

Types of Exempt Organizations and What They May Do (PDF)

Photo by Justin Valas (j valas images)

Here are a few other noteworthy items from the presentation:

Get engaged: Nonprofits should take part in town hall meetings, speak out at public meetings and become a host for educational forums. Ask Board members to get involved in the advocacy process.

Engage with legislators: Term limits are diminishing the amount of institutional knowledge that legislators possess. They depend on advocates, lobbyists and staff members for information and interpretation. Invite the legislators who represent the geographic territory where your physical headquarters is located to visit you and educate them about your organization’s mission.

Be patient: Advocacy is a long process. Most of the time, there are no clear “wins.” But if your nonprofit organization is not speaking up for the people you serve, who is?

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