Ballot Initiatives: How Nonprofits Can Stand Up for Direct Democracy

Blog

Mallory Morales


Collage of protestors, megaphones, ballot boxes against a blue-teal gradient.

From bold measures advancing economic justice, to criminal legal reform, to reproductive rights, the ballot initiative is a powerful tool for progressive citizen-led policy changes across the country. While 501(c)(3) public charities are prohibited from influencing candidate elections, nonprofits working to change policy at the state and local level can and should get involved in the ballot initiative process this upcoming election.

According to The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC)’s pre-2020 election report, “63% of voters of color surveyed (69% of young Black voters) said that voting on a ballot measure was a more effective way to make change in their state than voting for candidates.” Thus, by engaging with ballot initiatives your nonprofit will be responding directly to the issues your constituents, and particularly communities of color, care about and feel empowered to participate in.

Because ballot initiatives harness such great potential for progressive policy victories, it should come as no surprise that the ballot initiative process is also under attack by conservative lawmakers seeking to strip the rights of citizens and limit their ability to enact policy change via local and state measures. Not surprisingly, we have seen an increase in legislation this year to make the ballot initiative process more onerous.

Fortunately, nonprofits can fight back to defend this invaluable tool for direct democracy. Below are some ways your nonprofit can get involved:

  • Support legislation that will protect the ballot initiative process and oppose efforts to restrict the ballot initiative process. Expressing a view on legislation that could harm or help the ballot initiative process may be lobbying . . . and public charities and community foundations can lobby! Check out BISC’s Defend Direct Democracy campaign to follow the ballot initiative landscape and legislation that could impact the ballot initiative in your state. Be sure to also check out Bolder Advocacy’s resource around ballot initiative advocacy to learn the rules.
  • Stay informed and ready for local ballot initiatives that will appear on your community’s ballot. Monitoring upcoming ballot initiatives and educating your community about the issues that will impact them is a valuable way to increase democratic engagement. Public charities and community foundations can even express a view to voters on how they should vote on ballot initiatives. This is direct lobbying, and nonprofits should be aware of IRS lobbying guidelines.
    • Many state election agencies have public databases on ballot initiatives. In addition, the National Conference of State Legislatures has an online ballot initiative database to help organizations learn more about upcoming ballot initiatives.
  • Foundations can support organizations that engage in ballot initiative advocacy. Although private foundations cannot earmark grants for lobbying or engage in lobbying themselves without incurring a tax, private foundations can support grantees that lobby. Thus private foundations can build power through grant support. To learn more about how a private foundation can support its grantees’ policy work with specific project grants, check out our Project Grant Rule hub. Community or public foundations can also support grantees that engage in ballot measure advocacy and can support or oppose measures themselves so long as they stay within their lobbying limits.
  • Understand your state and local campaign finance rules. For all organizations that engage in ballot initiative advocacy or support this advocacy, staying informed on legal requirements is an important strategy for your success. Certain levels of financial or in-kind support and advocacy might trigger state or local campaign finance laws. Be sure to learn about state and local campaign finance rules to understand the reporting requirements in your jurisdiction. Check out our resource “Seize the Initiative” to learn about the campaign finance rules impacting nonprofits and foundations.

With the ballot initiative under attack across the country in many states, nonprofits have a crucial role to play in protecting an invaluable tool for policy change. Bolder Advocacy is here to help with the rules around ballot initiative advocacy. Contact us at completing this form, emailing advocacy@afj.org, or calling 866-NP-LOBBY.