Advocacy and nonprofit direct marketing

The most common question about nonprofit advocacy efforts is “can we actually do that with our nonprofit status?”

Absolutely.  I’m not an attorney and this is not a legal opinion, but I can point you to the IRS Web site:

In general, no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying).  A 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status.

So what does “substantial part” mean?  There are two ways you can quantify this.  The first is a Potter Stewart-esque “the IRS knows it when it sees it” type test.  The second, and more logical, one is as a percentage of revenues.  The full chart is here.

The thing to note is that it applies to expenditures.  If you set up an online petition about a specific bill and allow constituents to email their representatives, there are no marginal costs — only the costs of the platform that allows for this type to advocacy and your time working on the alert.  This is part of why online advocacy is so popular among nonprofits.

Mail is a little bit more challenging because of the expense involved but attorneys of my acquaintance have said (and remember, I’m not a lawyer), not all advocacy is lobbying.  Mentioning a specific bill number or a highly publicized issue that has a bill on it qualifies, but sending in a petition asking for higher priority for breast cancer research or environmental preservation probably does not qualify.

So now that you know you can do it, should you?  I would answer absolutely.  As nonprofits, we are working to solve social ills.  There is almost always something a governmental entity can do, or stop doing, that will help with some of the underlying parts of the ill you are looking to solve.

Additionally, as you might guessed since I am bringing up advocacy in a direct marketing context, advocacy is often an outstanding way to acquire, retain, and cultivate donors.  Advocacy appeals frequently have outstanding urgency to them (which I’ve noted helps with persuasion) and give you people with a deeper connection to your mission.  Additionally, as we discussed last week, having knowledge of your donors and which like advocacy appeals can be vital for customizing your communications to them.

But they have to be done the right way.  Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the debate on the value of online slacktivism and how to craft your online communications to make sure your advocacy doesn’t end with the Like.  And for the rest of the week, I’ll cover petitions in the mail, acquiring advocates, and converting advocates into donors.

Incidentally, if you would like a free weekly digest of these blog posts, along with previews of coming attractions, and some special subscriber-only benefits that will e cool once I’ve figured out what they are, you can sign up here.

Advocacy and nonprofit direct marketing

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