Learn to Love Lobbying

By Nelson, Fraser; Brady, David W. et al. | Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Learn to Love Lobbying


Nelson, Fraser, Brady, David W., Snibbe, Alana Conner, Stanford Social Innovation Review


Most nonprofits don't know how to lobby and, worse, think that it entails cutting shady deals with sleazy characters. Yet lobbying is nothing more than educating legislators - a right that our democracy guarantees. To make the changes they want to see in the world, nonprofits must learn to lobby. And who knows? They may even learn to love it.

WHAT DO MOTHERS AGAINST DRUNK DRIVING and the National Beer Wholesalers Association have in common? How are the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Philip Morris similar? What do the Love Canal Homeowners Association and Hooker Chemical Company share?

They all know that if you want to change the world, you have to lobby local, state, and federal governments.

Legislative action is often the best way to bring about the stable, sweeping changes that nonprofits crave. And yet nonprofits routinely forfeit their right to lobby, finds the Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy Project (SNAP), a survey of more than 1,700 national nonprofits conducted in 2001 by Tufts University, OMB Watch, and the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest. (see chart on p. 59 for a definition of lobbying.) Although many nonprofits have lobbied once or a few times in the past, very few make lobbying a regular activity.

The ranks of lobbyists are therefore short of nonprofit voices, and instead are dominated by the interests of industries or specific corporations. In Utah, for example, where one of the authors (Eraser Nelson) long worked for the Disability Law Center (DLC), fewer than 5 percent of the registered lobbyists represent community-based organizations. In the absence of nonprofit lobbyists, corporations and industries frame most public policies - including those that affect nonprofit issues, nonprofit clients, and even the nonprofit sector itself.

Nonprofits have their reasons for steering clear of legislatures. But when they do not use every avenue to assert their clients' rights - especially when clients cannot do so on their own - they fail in their missions. At the DLC, for instance, clients are residents of the state mental hospital, are homeless, or are children with disabilities. When nonprofits don't speak up for them, no one does. More generally, when nonprofits shy away from the rough-and-tumble world of politics, they miss out on opportunities to improve legislation, to strengthen their organizations, and to advance their issues.

Why Not Lobby?

When nonprofit leaders are asked why they don't lobby, their first answer usually involves the word "sleaze." They do not see what lobbying has to do with their pure and unselfish missions. They protest that rubbing shoulders with high-powered folks in Gucci loafers can't possibly advance their causes, and will only turn off their donors. After all, who wants to be associated with the likes of Jack Abramoff?

Even when they are lobbying, nonprofits don't like to use "the L-word," finds the SNAP study. Instead, they use such euphemisms as "educating policymakers" or "advocacy" - a much broader term that means any endeavor to change government or private sector policy, including lobbying, education campaigns, and public appeals. Unlike these other forms of advocacy, though, only lobbying is regulated by the government.

Many boards and directors do not understand the laws governing nonprofit lobbying, and so labor under the false assumption that lobbying will get them into trouble with the IRS - a second obstacle to nonprofit lobbying. For example, half of the nonprofits in the SNAP study incorrectly thought that they could not lobby if part of their budget comes from federal funds.

Worries about the IRS are not entirely unfounded: In 2006, the IRS investigated the NAACP for abusing its tax-exempt status after the organization's chairman, Julian Bond, criticized President George W Bush during the 2004 presidential campaign.

In the end, the IRS called off its investigation. Indeed, the IRS has made it easier for nonprofits to account for their lobbying and advocacy activities. …

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