Nonprofit Lobbying: Our Flying Purple People-Eater

Photo Credit: Purple People Eater Movie (c)

No Nonprofit Lobbying: The Legend

Not so shockingly, my demand for talks on lobbying and advocacy rights have gone up, way up. Sitting almost as high as the blood pressure of most Rockets fans right now (C’mon Team!)

Which isn’t a problem. I love to talk, and I love to talk about things that matter.

My message is simple, it’s shameful so many nonprofit peeps shrink from getting more active in the civic arena. Justifying the absence with, ” but nonprofits aren’t allowed to.” We’ve allowed nonprofit lobbying to become folklore, a modern day purple people eater.

But organizations have to stop perpetuating this “we can’t get involved” myth. Because here’s the thing. If your mission statement has words like “challenge”, “educate”, “empower”, “advance” etc., I contend it’s not only hard but near impossible to accomplish any of these without lobbying, advocating and protesting; in some form or fashion.


What’s in a Word?

Let’s all hit a lotus pose and reflect on what “lobby”, “advocate” or “protest” mean. Removing all the baggage and pre-conceptions. Here are the Merriam-Webster definitions…



Nonprofits aren’t restricted from advocating. And they’re not restricted from protesting. Lobbying has limitations, but not a prohibition. So our trepidation isn’t because of the law. I think it’s buried in our emotions. Because we associate these concepts with with riots or the ominous, grey commercials mucking up our tv’s come election time.

But let’s look at it another way. Organizations have a responsibility to educate the community and its clients; that’s advocating. Where infrastructural systems stop positive progress, organization’s have to step up and say, “Hey, this isn’t working. We need to pause and find another way.” That’s protesting. And either of these may require we have conversations with our legislators or constituencies about what’s happening on the ground. That’s lobbying.

 Nothing nefarious about any of this.


It’s All About Balance

I acknowledge, there is a balancing act; between donors, stakeholders, employees and the public at large. That in and of itself is not an issue. The issue comes where organizations use ghost legal restrictions in an effort not to “upset anyone.” Because I’ve yet found a way to effect change without ruffling feathers. And is it the organization’s role to make everyone comfortable? I think it’s to provoke, to challenge, to engage, while being empathetic and diplomatic. And by diplomatic I mean creating spaces for people to voice their thoughts, fears and opinions safely.

Well Erin, there’s legal liability too,” some say. And that’s absolutely true. There are legal restrictions and liability to keep in mind.

Which is why a separate or spin-off organization may be worth a look. Some causes require a little more elbow grease with legislators. With these, for example, that work could be split off into a 501(c)(4) organization; leaving the education and programming to a 501(c)(3). Groups wanting a more serious say in a candidate getting, or not getting, into office could use a 527 organization. Those don’t limit lobbying, and fundraised funds spent on the mission are tax-exempt.

If create a separate organization interests you, I’ll walk through different ways to set up in the next post. For now, ask yourself these questions and you’ll see in the next post why the answers matter.

  1. What’s the goal of our organization? To influence outcomes? To educate?
  2. How can this goal be achieved? Is political action or influencing legislation the only way? Grassroots action crowdsourcing? 
  3. Who will we interface with? And who do we need to talk with or get permission from to do that.
  4. Why are we doing what were doing?
  5. When do we plan to be active?


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