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Advocacy Tool Kit

Advocacy is critical for sustaining and growing your program and the overall community land trust and permanently affordable housing field. On this page, you will find material to help clarify the role of nonprofits in political advocacy (what you can and cannot do) and tools to help you and your organization become more effective advocates.

This Resource at a Glance

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Key take-aways:

  • There is a difference between lobbying and advocacy.
  • Nonprofits should understand the limits on their political activity before beginning a lobbying or advocacy campaign.
  • Storytelling can be an important tool for advocacy.

These tools were developed to help plan and conduct advocacy visits. They were also used to help Grounded Solutions staff, board, and Resident Ambassadors conduct 60 advocacy meetings on Capitol Hill in 2015.

Step 1: Learn the Difference Between Advocacy and Lobbying

Nonprofit organizations have critical knowledge and experience that must be communicated to decisionmakers in order for them to understand how their actions impact the lives of community members in their jurisdictions. But, because nonprofits are tax exempt, the IRS has placed some restrictions on the types of lobbying, not advocacy, activities that a nonprofit can do.  Understanding the key differences between lobbying and advocacy activities will help your organization exercise its right (and responsibility) to participate in the public process.

What is lobbying?

The IRS defines lobbying as any attempt to influence specific legislation by:

  1. contacting or urging the public to contact policy makers for the purpose of proposing, supporting or opposing legislation
  2. advocating the adoption or rejection of legislation.  Lobbying involves three parts: communication with a policy maker that takes a position on specific, pending legislation.

Nonprofit organizations must track and report both the time and money that they spend on lobbying activities to the IRS every year.  A good rule is to keep all lobbying activities to less than 5% of your organization’s total budget.

What is advocacy?

Advocacy is the act of arguing in favor of something such as a cause, idea or policy.  There are no restrictions on nonprofit advocacy, but it is good practice to identify a board member or establish a board committee to set your organization’s advocacy priorities and oversee your activities in order to ensure compliance with all IRS guidelines.

Examples of advocacy activities:

  • Building relationships with your representatives
  • Educating representatives about your organization and issues that matter to you
  • Influencing decision makers on an issue unrelated to specific legislation
  • Educating the public about your organization and issues
  • Registering voters
  • Commenting on regulations

Illegal Activities for Nonprofits

There are some things that, as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, you may not do and retain your tax exempt status.  Your organization may not endorse candidates for public office. You may not make campaign contributions.  You also may not rate candidates in terms of their stance on a particular issue, though you can educate the public about each candidate’s viewpoint.

Additional Resources:
IRS guidance on the allowable advocacy and lobbying activities for 501(c)3 organizations.
IRS Measuring Lobbying Activity: Expenditure Test
IRS Measuring Lobbying Activity: Substantial Part Test
Alliance for Justice: Worry Free Lobbying for Nonprofits

Step 2: Develop an Advocacy Plan

Advocacy Plan Guide
This step by step guide will prepare you for advocacy initiatives, from identifying staff and board roles and responsibilities to making specific policy target work plans.

Additional Resource:
501 Resources for Advocacy & Community Engagement

Step 3: Tell Your Advocacy Story

Storytelling for Advocacy
This worksheet gives tips and an overview of why we tell stories.

Additional Resource:
TED Talks on Storytelling

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