All the partners make the journey richer across the sectors that demonstrate the power of collaboration, the power of the future. – Frances Hesselbein
How many of us know our State Senators? Our City Council Members? How many can recognize our State Representatives if we see them, at the supermarket? How many of us have meaningful relationships with any of the elected officials who serve our communities?
While it may not be surprising that many would answer “no” to these questions, what is surprising, and a bit disappointing, is how many of us involved in the nonprofit sector have never thought of engaging our elected officers in conversation about the incredible work we do for, and with, our communities.
This is a more important question than it may seem, but to see why, let me first tell you about a book that had an enormous influence on my thinking, and ultimately on my decision to work in the nonprofit sector—one that still sits on my desk, dog-eared pages yellowing, as I find myself referring to it again and again in my work: Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. OK, you are wondering how the writing of an élite French philosopher so deeply affected my thinking about American democracy. Well, by the time I read it, I had already voted in my first presidential election, witnessed political rallies, volunteered in a food bank, and written a letter to my Senator, and after working in the financial services industry for a while, was considering giving up the idea of “being rich” for the idea of “being engaged” and working to further the needs of our communities. So when I finally discovered Tocqueville, he spoke to me.
Why? Well, for one thing, he made me realize that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution makes provision for the freedoms of speech and association. These are the foundations upon which nonprofit organizations are built. While people in other countries can advocate, the rights of citizens to form voluntary associations for the purpose of advocating for the common good is fundamental to the American way of life. Tocqueville saw something special in that foundational American principle: the ability to build associations gave people a collective voice to express their deepest concerns and values.
Nonprofit organizations expand this idea of association in the interest of endowing us with the power to express and act upon our beliefs. They are the places where activities and services essential to our quality of life are created. They give us both, an opportunity and an obligation to engage us in conversation about what is possible for our communities. They are trusted and valued institutions engaged in the lives of the people they serve and who serve and support our communities — they are our volunteers, board members, residents, and children. They give voice to our constituents.
So how do these Tocquevillian inspired insights bring us to my topic of the day: the importance of engaging directly with our elected officials for the purpose of furthering our work? Because once they understand our role in public life, they can become our allies in furthering our goals, which are, after all, the goals they are committed to serve as representatives of their own communities. And so it is our right and responsibility to engage with them. Dialogue, learning, listening and engaging with our business leaders, community champions, and elected leaders are among the fundamental roles we all have as nonprofit ambassadors and leaders. It takes all of us to build a community, to get to know each other and tear down silos.
So Lets Dispel the Myth.
Let’s start by dispelling the myth that nonprofit organizations cannot engage in advocacy or lobbying. According to Alliance for Justice, “501 (c) (3) public charities (including public foundations) CAN lobby within the generous limits allowed by federal law. How much lobbying the organization can do depends on which of two sets of rules the organization chooses to fall under–the “501 (h) expenditure test” or the “insubstantial part test.” In issuing regulations on lobbying, the Internal Revenue Service stated that, under either test, public charities “may lobby freely” so long as lobbying is within specified limits.”
Both the Alliance for Justice (www.AFJ.org) and the Center for Law and the Public Interest (www.clpi.org) have websites full of excellent information and tips. Review them, and if you find the information valuable, share it with your Board of Directors. While you may choose not to lobby, it is important for our Boards, volunteers and advocates that it is a choice made by each and every organization. The law does not prohibit 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt organizations from lobbying.
What CAN You Do?
Here are just 3 of the key things you can do:
1.) Direct Lobbying: You can tell legislators (or other government officials who take part in the formulation of legislation) your organization’s position on a piece of legislation and/or urge them to support or oppose the legislation. You can also educate your constituents, volunteers and Board members about what the legislation is about.
2.) Grassroots Lobbying: You can tell the general public your position on legislation and ask them to communicate this position to their legislators (or other government officials who participate in the formulation of legislation).
3.) Voter Registration: Even during election season, nonprofits can still educate voters about important issues. Nonprofits may also participate in nonpartisan voter registration drives and urge citizens to vote.
Here are three things a 501 c (3) nonprofit organization CANNOT do:
1.) 501 c (3) nonprofits cannot endorse or oppose political candidates, nor mobilize supporters to elect or defeat candidates.
2.) 501 c 3 nonprofits cannot align themselves with political parties.
3.) 501 c 3 nonprofit organizations cannot contribute in time or money to political candidates or parties.
SOURCE: Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest publication “Make a Difference for Your Cause,” (pages 16-17) which can be found here: http://clpi.org/images/stories/content_img/Make_a_Difference_RG%5B1%5D.pdf
Although, It Is All About Relationships: 8 Steps to Building Strong Ones!
1. Know who your state representatives, city councils, congressional delegation and senators are, know them not only for your personal districts, but also for the districts where your organization resides and for the districts where your constituents live.
2. Research your elected officials; find out what their interests, values, and passions are. What do their bios say about them, what have they supported in the past that pertains to your organizations and/or the issues you care about? Who are their key policy staff members, what do they care about? How might you get to know them?
3. Be ready to be quick and efficient. Elected officials have a limited amount of time to spend with you (estimate 15 minutes, if you can engage them, perhaps will get 30 minutes.) Realize they are not intentionally trying to rush you, although a lot of people want to meet with them. Be prepared.
4. Tell them a powerful story. Tell them about your organization and its impact on the community. As the great fund raising guru Kay Sprinkle Grace says, “Give them a story and a statistic.” You want to appeal to their intellect and their emotion. Prepare at least 2 great stories and 2 relevant statistics.
5. Engage them! Invite them to your events and programs, and invite their staffs to attend. Ask if you can add them to your mailing list and leave a few information packages.
6. Leave the door open for another meeting. Let them know that you are interested in developing a relationship with them and offer them the expertise of your organization, senior staff and Board members. Offer to make a presentation to other constituents about these issues. Let them know the services you have available to help their constituents. Invite them to come on a tour of your organization, or ask them to join some of your Board members for an informal coffee.
7. Send a thank you note. This is a great way to keep your relationship open, make it personal. Send a card from those who benefit from your services and cultivate the relationship. Stay on their radar screen! Be in a place for them to feel comfortable inviting you to visit again.
8. Keep building the relationship. People like to work with people they know and like. Stay engaged.
And remember what Tocqueville knew: that the power of such associations is crucial to the democracy we are privileged to enjoy.
All nonprofits have a vital role to play in our democracy. For 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations that role includes lobbying. Nonprofits have every right to advocate on behalf of policies they believe in. It is only when this advocacy deals with specific legislation that limits come into play. – Independent Sector Website