According to a story on the Associated Press, fewer non-profits are engaging in lobbying efforts than 20 years ago. The Independent Sector had commissioned a study that found less than 1/3 of organizations engaged in lobbying over the last five years versus nearly 3/4 of organizations in 2000. Given that there was a lot of advocacy for Covid funding, these results make me wonder if more people weren’t engaged in lobbying in the last five years and didn’t consider what they were doing to be lobbying or if fewer entities did a lot of the heavy lifting versus twenty years ago.
The survey results do seem to indicate organizations are unaware of lobbying rules or uncomfortable with engaging in lobbying and lack the resources to participate.
And even though nonprofits work on a range of issues that are affected by policy choices, such as funding for the arts and science and policies on hot-button issues like abortion and gun control, less than one-third of nonprofits said they were well-versed in how to legally conduct advocacy campaigns and how much lobbying they were permitted to do. Twenty years ago more than half knew the rules, the survey found.
Holding nonprofits back, Watkins said, was a lack of money to hire full-time staff with policy expertise and fear that taking part in debates on policy matters or providing voters with nonpartisan voting guides would put their nonprofit status in jeopardy.
Independent Sector plans to conduct studies to dig deeper into the reasons for the decline, but experts said many nonprofits don’t have the money to engage in policy debates. And some organizations may fear taking public stances on issues, given the heated political environment.
Sticking their necks out could make them targets of political opponents, they said.
A number of survey responses seemed to indicate people were concerned about running afoul IRS rules that prohibit investing a substantial amount of time and resources into lobbying. Substantial is apparently a much higher bar than people realize, though obviously the term leaves a considerable amount of gray area open to interpretation.
While Gorovitz allowed that the IRS regulations on nonprofit advocacy can be confusing, the guidance provided by the agency, he said, is often misunderstood.
“It does not mean ‘don’t lobby,’” he said. “It means lobby. It’s an express invitation in the tax code that says you can lobby.”