Advancing Policy to New Elected Officials: Introduction to Lobbying


Leslie Barnes, , Shyaam Subramanian


Now that elections are “mostly” behind us, we wanted to turn our attention to lobbying for policy changes no matter where you are or what project you work on.

Our attorneys for this episode:

Leslie Barnes  Jen Powis Shyaam Subramanian

Show Notes

In this episode, we wanted to introduce the topic of lobbying and encourage all of our nonprofit listeners to take advantage of this transition time to begin educating and advancing your work to newly elected officials.

    • Nonprofits as subject matter experts & trusted experts
    • Introduce organization, facts about clients you serve & policies your organization support
    • Congratulate newly elected officials by introducing yourself and your mission and
    • Become a resource for new elected official staff.

During this transition time, when elections are over, but perhaps new legislative sessions have not begun, or electeds are not sworn in, work to make your issue one of the top issues.  Nonprofit public charities can absolutely connect with transition teams to advocate for policy agendas or to prioritize your issue in the early days.

    • For example, recommending characteristics to consider in new appointees to department heads or other appointed spots is permissible and may not count as lobbying!
    • Asking for distinct budget line items to be adopted may be lobbying though because you’re specifically asking for funds to be included in the law at a very specific amount. For example, providing a fact sheet showing exactly how you’d like police funding to re-allocated to social services within the police department (or outside of it) would likely be lobbying.
    • Remember there’s a distinction between lobbying for specific people to be voted in; and for recommending people (or types of people) to be placed. The more specific your request is on a policy, the closer it become to actual lobbying and not simply education and advocacy.

Remember, advocacy to existing government staff around rules, regulations, and executive orders is NOT LOBBYING! E.g., HUD regulations, Executive Orders to fix family separation etc.

We’ll be discussing the distinctions between lobbying and advocacy a lot over the next few months as we gear up for a new year and new legislative season but in the short term, remember that as a nonprofit, you play an incredibly important role in policy!

This could also include actually serving on the transition team.

    • For example, maybe a new mayor wants to study an issue in your town, like how to support performing arts organizations that are struggling. So before she is sworn in, she creates a table to gather resources in the lame duck period.
    • If you’re not at the table, ask to be, or better yet, ask that the table be formed with you as chair! This is allowed!

When does it turn into lobbying? All this education turns to lobbying when distinct policy agendas are discussed or specific requests for a line item in a budget is relayed to a legislative official or staff member that has the ability to write it into a law.

Because lobbying is such a big topic, we’re going to spend multiple episodes fleshing out the nuances in the topic.  But for now, the most important part, and you’ll get tired of hearing us say it is:

Public Charities and community foundations CAN lobby

    • Lobbying is the express act or communication that attempts to influence legislation or change the law.
    • There are two tests for how much lobbying a public charity can engage in and how it reports that lobbying to the IRS on its tax return at the end of the year. The two tests are:
      • Insubstantial Part and
      • 501(h) Expenditures Test
    • Just a reminder, you must track and report IRS-defined lobbying activities to the IRS.

Another bit of misunderstanding we often see is around whether private foundations can fund grantees that lobby.  This topic is complex and while a private foundation can absolutely support all nonpartisan advocacy programs, a private foundation can not earmark funds for lobbying or it risks incurring an excise tax.

Let’s not leave out unions, or trade associations, or other types of nonprofits!  While this is not the main subject of this show, just a reminder, 501(c)(4)/(c)(5)/(c)(6)’s can also lobby.

Lobbying is a big topic and one that BA specializes in.  There’s much more on our next episodes.  For immediate questions, call us at the Bolder Advocacy hotline (free) 1-866-NP-LOBBY.  And be bold in your advocacy!  Decide what policy you want today and go lobby!