Lobbying is Part of the Heritage Toolkit
By Kyle Jansson
It seems that every year about this time, when Congress and the Oregon Legislature are convening, I get asked “Can nonprofit organizations lobby elected officials?”
My answer is always “yes.”
Some question my answer, saying they’ve heard from “others” that their nonprofit could lose its tax-exempt status if they lobby or talk with an elected official about a pending issue. I often will refer these folks to helpful websites of the Nonprofit Association of Oregon and the National Council of Nonprofits.
The National Council says that Congress way back in 1976 clarified that 501(c)(3) nonprofits may lobby and set “generous” limits on what nonprofits can spend on lobbying. For example, 20 percent of a nonprofit’s first $500,000 in expenditures can be spent on lobbying without any penalty. There is even an Internal Revenue Service process for raising those spending limits on lobbying by your organization.
Both the national and state groups say lobbying is defined as influencing specific legislation.
“Educating decision makers and lawmakers about an issue is NOT considering lobbying; nor is hosting a public meeting or distributing a report about an issue,” says the state organization.
In short, educating the public and decision makers about the value of heritage; the challenges faced by the heritage sector and solutions proposed for them; the mission and goals of your organization; the value of the Oregon Cultural Trust, the Oregon Historical Society and other heritage organizations; and the issues affecting your organization is advocacy, not lobbying.
For more information about lobbying and advocacy, visit these sites:
- Internal Revenue Service – Political and Lobby Activities
- National Council of Nonprofits – Nonprofit Advocacy
- Nonprofit Association of Oregon – Advocacy Overview
- American Alliance of Museums – Advocacy
Of course, if you represent a government agency, you will want to check with your manager to learn what its policies and guidelines say about advocacy and lobbying.
Kyle Jansson is coordinator of the Oregon Heritage Commission. He will lead a session at the Oregon Heritage Conference in May on engaging decision makers and the public on heritage issues.