The Sharp Decline of Non-profit Advocacy in the US

Category Business

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In the last five years, fewer than a third of charities in the U.S. engaged in advocacy. This has dropped from 74% in the year 2000. This is nearly due to a lack of understanding of the rules governing the activity. There are 1.5 million nonprofits that can legally advocate but hesitate due to confusion about the rules. Nonprofits can follow the 501(h) election in order to easily comply with the laws.

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Fewer than a third of charities in the U.S. (31%) engaged in advocacy in the last five years. This represents a dramatic decline in the past two decades, we found, even though the law allows these groups to speak up regarding the issues that affect the people they serve. The results of the Public Engagement Nonprofit Survey, a new nationally representative study we conducted on behalf of Independent Sector – a coalition of nonprofits, foundations and corporate giving programs – indicate that many charities don’t engage in policy discussions because they don’t fully understand the rules governing those activities. We are scholars of nonprofits who conduct research regarding nonprofits. The executive directors of about 2,300 nationally representative nonprofits completed this survey during the second half of 2022.

Nonprofits are defined as 501(c)3 organizations under the US tax code.

Along with finding that only 3 in 10 nonprofits engage in policy advocacy, we found that only 25% report ever formally lobbying government, compared with 74% that ever lobbied in 2000 – and this is heavily related to not knowing that they can. In 2000, the last time a similar survey was conducted, 73% of charities knew they had the right to support or oppose legislation, compared with only 32% who know that today.

Advocacy does not need to be a major part of nonprofits' daily activities to be considered legal.

We were surprised to see such a sharp decline in nonprofit advocacy, despite ongoing educational efforts around advocacy by national and state associations of nonprofits and others since 2000. All charities, officially known as 501(c)3 nonprofits due to the portion of the U.S. tax code that defines their obligations, may legally speak out regarding public issues in an effort to influence local, state and national government decisions. There are roughly 1.5 million nonprofits of this kind in the U.S., including food banks, homeless shelters, day care centers and arts organizations. It can be vital for the advancement of their missions that charities exercise this right. For example, after-school programs can encourage staff members and volunteers to address school board members and other local officials, state representatives – and even members of Congress. They can suggest ideas for new rules, laws or funding that would help the children they serve.

In 2000, 74% of charities ever engaged in lobbying, compared with 25% in 2022.

The rules for how nonprofits can advocate are more flexible than many people believe. Nonprofits can raise awareness about issues affecting the people they serve, and they can also lobby by directly reaching out to public officials about legislation. As long as nonprofit employees don’t spend too much time out of their day – meaning that doing so does not become a major part of their daily activities – and don’t use government money for lobbying, they’re complying with the law. While how much is "too much time" is unclear, charities can file a simple one-page form with the IRS, called the 501(h) election, providing their organization’s name and address and taking the election. Filing this form lets charities follow much clearer rules based on how much money they spend on lobbying rather than how much of it they do. What’s more, when nonprofits use this form, their volunteers don’t face any limits on the time they may spend engaging in legislative activities.

The 501(h) election is a one page form filed with the IRS outlining the legal rules of advocacy organizations must follow.

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