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Advocacy & Community Engagement

Most of the major movements that have changed America have their roots in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit organizations have brought us child labor laws, food regulations, women's right to vote, civil rights, equality for LGBT communities, and, as the labor movement points out, the weekend!

Nonprofits as Advocates

When we hear “there are rules about that,” we tend to shy away from the area. But most nonprofits would increase their impact if they were to increase their organization’s advocacy efforts. Much of the sector needs to shift from just responding to problems in our community to trying to address the root causes of those problems. Generally this means changing public attitudes, local and national policies, and market systems that underlie our work.

If you are already engaged in advocacy and would like to measure the effectiveness of your efforts, A Guide to Measuring Advocacy and Policy [PDF download] will be helpful. To assess your nonprofit's readiness to engage in advocacy projects, check out the Advocacy Capacity Tool.

Additionally, these organizations, projects, and resources will help you get started or further advance your efforts:

Role of the Board in Advocacy and Community Engagement

"Stand for Your Mission" is a campaign designed to build awareness around the importance of board advocacy to advancing an organization's mission. Board members "stand for their mission" by being strong ambassadors to civic leaders, decision-makers, and the public at large.

Initiated by Campion Foundation, BoardSource, and a wide host of national partners, "Stand for Your Mission" provides free resources and tools to equip board members to enact meaningful societal and policy change. The ultimate goal of the "Stand for Your Mission" campaign is to change the board so that advocacy becomes an expectation for every board member.

Follow our blog for tips in engaging your board.

Lobbying on Legislation

All lobbying is advocacy, but not all advocacy is lobbying. The rules about nonprofits doing advocacy are focused on lobbying, which is when an organization tries to influence the outcome for a particular piece of legislation through communications with legislators or legislators' staff. Nonprofits can hire lobbyists or use  their staff members or volunteers to do lobbying. Either way, it is important to know the rules about how much of your resources can be spent in this way and how to register as a lobbyist.

Read our blog post about how nonprofits can stay engaged with congressional and state leaders.

Be clear about how you are measuring your expenditures

The rules regarding the amount of money nonprofits can spend on lobbying without jeopardizing their 501(c)(3) tax status are complicated. Organizations can choose to measure their lobbying expenditures under either the 501(h) expenditure test (which has well defined rules) or the "insubstantial part test" where the rules are less well defined.  While very large organizations or those making substantial expenditures may choose to operate under the insubstantial part test, most smaller organizations that make more modest expenditures will file the 501(h) election form so that they can follow the limitations defined by the IRS: IRS Information on Expenditure Test

The IRS form tied to either election or revocation of 501(h) election is below:

Independent Sector and Bolder Advocacy offer great information about advocacy, including the 501(h) election:

Community Engagement

Other forms of advocacy are providing education to the public or government staff and officials about an issue, engaging voters to provide information about an issue, and giving citizens information about how to track and influence government or get involved in grassroots nonpartisan issue campaigns.

Community engagement efforts can broaden understanding of the issues your organization is addressing and, thus, increase people's willingness to give of their time and money to support your cause. It can also be a tool for activating clients of nonprofit services, so that they are directly involved in changing perceptions and building social capital among people with whom they do not normally interact.