Yes, you can lobby— and so much more!By Kathy Keeley
Many nonprofits think that their hands are tied when it comes to working with elected officials. But as an organization with members, donors, and volunteers, you have the power to influence a lot of people—and that makes you important to anyone who answers to voters. Yes, you can lobby, but there are rules.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. You are free to educate elected officials about the needs and issues around your agency. What you can’t do is endorse candidates or contribute to their campaigns.
2. If you’re going to engage in activities in support of legislation and appropriations, you need to file an IRS 5768, which is a declaration of your intent to lobby. Depending on how much lobbying you’ll do, you should consider filing as a lobbyist with the state of Georgia. Even with these measures, however, you still can’t take partisan action—that is, endorsing candidates. (There are two tests the IRS uses to measure the extent of your lobbying activities: the substantial part test and the expenditure test.)
3. You can hold candidate forums or town hall meetings with elected officials, but, if it’s election season, you can’t include one candidate and not the others—you must include all of the candidates running for a particular position. You must also be careful that candidates don’t try to use their presence at your forum as an endorsement. You may find it easiest to hold these when it’s not election season, in which case you can invite the office-holder only. You are also free to attend town hall meetings put on by elected officials—and, if you do, be sure to ask a question.
4. You are free to publish information about candidates: report cards, voting records, and their stated views concerning issues. You can even interview candidates and publish the results for your members and stakeholders—but, you must publish responses from all candidates running for that particular office. (For example, you can’t just publish one candidate's response to a question on global warming without publishing responses from all of the candidates.)
Welcoming officials for a visit will develop your nonprofit’s relationship with them, making them more likely to respect you, listen to you, and inform themselves regarding the issues you care about.
5. You can invite your elected officials to visit your organization, see what you do, and learn about your mission. Alternately, you can visit them at their offices. Generally, the best time to perform these activities is April through October, when the legislature is not in session and when they’re not engaged in an election—meaning distractions are at a minimum. Welcoming officials for a visit will develop your nonprofit’s relationship with them, making them more likely to respect you, listen to you, and inform themselves regarding the issues you care about. Also important: Whenever you meet with an official, take a photo with them and publish it to your audiences. This illustrates the relationship both to your people and to others influenced by that official.
6. Get your board members to talk with legislators. Although the same rules governing nonprofit activities apply to your board members, they can represent different parts of the community: for example, a board member who’s a business leader or a medical professional adds the weight of that community to their perspective.
7. Offer to be a resource for constituents. People frequently call their elected officials for help, and your services can likely aid them. This can strengthen your relationship with your legislator as well as with their constituents—and lead to new donors and volunteers as well.
8. If you’ve never been to the Capitol or participated in a collective lobbying day (like Children’s Day or Health Advocates Day), then join someone who has the next time they go.
9. Find out which committees your legislators serve on. Committees do most of the work, so it’s important to understand which committee is the right one to reach, if you’re going to be effective.
10. What’s more, always:
- Be respectful.
- Have facts.
- Make your communications quick and efficient.
- Leave behind a one-pager about your organization or your main issues that’s easy to read at a glance.
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Kathy Keeley is executive vice president of programs and a senior consultant at GCN.
Photo credit: By Connor.carey at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10143115