Nonprofit Radio: Election Year Advocacy

Headphones silhouette against On-Air sign symbolising a podcast broadcast.

I’ll be on Nonprofit Radio this Friday at 10:30 am PT / 1:30 pm ET discussing What’s Permissible Advocacy with host Tony Martignetti. Catch us live on Talking Alternative or a few days later on iTunes.

How much can your nonprofit participate in the presidential election? Can you educate? Endorse? Lobby? Gene Takagi walks us through what’s allowed; disallowed; and questionable.

Who Should Engage in Advocacy?

All of us who work for nonprofits are advocates of our organizations and the communities they serve. Fundraisers know this. But the role of advocacy needs to be further embedded on all levels of a nonprofit starting with the board. We should also ensure we’re communicating not only with prospective donors but also with the broader public. And we can’t forget about policy makers who create the rules and the playing field we operate in. Let’s remember that all of the most important public policies we hold dear to us – civil rights, women’s rights, disability rights, education, health, religion, environmental protection, animal welfare, etc. – result from strong nonprofit advocacy and not just individual leaders.

Potential Areas of Advocacy

  • Proposed cut in budget or public services to the people you serve
  • Proposed change in a law that will affect your core mission and the people you serve
  • Proposed change in law that will affect your organization’s ability to operate or fundraise

Some Permissible Forms of Advocacy for Public Charities

  • Stating the organization’s position on a public policy issue
  • Educational activities (including educating lawmakers and even candidates if done appropriately in a nonpartisan manner)
  • Lobbying (attempting to influence legislation – bills and laws made by legislative bodies), within certain limits which can be fairly generous, particularly for charities making the 501(h) election
  • Advocating a change in administrative regulations

Some Impermissible Forms of Advocacy for Public Charities

  • Endorsing a candidate for public office (including by providing a link to a candidate’s website)
  • Contributing to a candidate
  • Using organizational resources to support a candidate (including use of organizational emails)
  • Getting a candidate to endorse the organization’s agenda
  • Evaluating or grading the candidates’ positions

Some Tricky Areas to Approach Cautiously

  • Issue advocacy (generally okay) that may appear to be timed with an election
  • Legislative scorecards that may appear to be timed with an election
  • Praising, honoring, criticizing an incumbent who is also a candidate
  • Voter education (debates, forums, guides, candidate questionnaires) implemented in what may appear to be a partisan manner
  • Social media likes, favorites, follows, and third party comments related to candidates


Everyday Advocacy, National Council of Nonprofits

Policy & Advocacy, Independent Sector

The Do’s and Don’ts of Electoral Advocacy, NAEYC

Electoral Activity, Bolder Advocacy (Alliance for Justice)