In my short time so far as a YWCA advocacy intern my primary concern was being non-partisan while running a Get Out the Vote social media campaign. To me being non-partisan meant avoiding talking about political issues. Additionally, I believed that having 501(c)(3) status meant that because we were tax exempt we could not be overly political, we could not lobby, and we could not voice concerns directly about the government even though politics directly influences our work.
However, on Friday September 16th I attended the Worry Free Advocacy Work-Shop put on by the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona in partnership with the YWCA of Southern Arizona. They invited national expert Sarah Matlin, Bi-lingual Counsel for the Alliance for Justice to lead the workshop. Previous illusions about non-profits were quickly shattered. What I learned is that 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations can sometimes be partisan and engage in lobbying efforts.
First and foremost, 501(c)(3)’s are limited in their lobbying efforts, however, Sarah Matlin, informed me and the rest of the audience that very rarely will a 501(c)(3) do too much lobbying. The way that the IRS looks at the lobbying efforts of a 501(c)(3) is to measure efforts. How do you measure effort? The answer is simple. You do not measure effort; rather you submit a one-time form called the 501(h) Expenditure test. This form allows your non-profit 501(c)(3) agency to measure your lobbying efforts in money rather than vague terms like efforts. Additionally, once this form is submitted 501(c)(3)’s can spend 20% of their overall budget on lobbying efforts. Additionally, because you do not pay volunteers, volunteer time does not count as part of the 20%. Thus, 501(c)(3)’s can and should be lobbying.
Sarah Matlin also destroyed my ill-conceived notions of what lobbying is versus what it actually is. Lobbying is trying to influence new laws, including supporting or opposing ballot measures. However, an non-profit organization can criticize and praise incumbent officials. Additionally, if the non-profit has a social media page, the page needs to have a disclaimer of some sort, saying that the organization is non-partisan. However, non-profits can let partisan comments from others slide as long as they have the disclaimer on their page.
I learned that non-profits can do a lot more in terms of politics and lobbying than I had previously thought. I will be using the social media tips that Sarah shared such as making sure that the GOTV Facebook page has a disclaimer on it immediately. Additionally, any non-profit that I work for in future will likely file the 50(h) Expenditure test form in order to use 20% of our overall budget towards lobbying. Hopefully, Sarah will spread her knowledge far and wide so that nonprofits can help make big legislative changes in the upcoming years.
Valerie Denogean is MSW PAC student at ASU. She was born and raised in Tucson. She is interested in prison-reform, immigration, education-reform, politics, inequalities because of race and gender. However, currently she is interested in Eco-Feminism and how the treatment of women connects with the state of the environment, the treatment of animals, and our food. Valerie likes to run, hike and swim. She swam competitively for the Guilford College Quaker Swim team. She likes to travel and hopes to use her Social Work Degree in Northern Virginia after graduation.