Empowering Native Voices: The Role of Advocacy by Public Charities

Blog

Sarah Efthymiou

Issues

Native Americans

Topics

Community Organizing, Influencing Legislation, Lobbying, Public Charity Advocacy


June 2, 2024, marked the 100th anniversary of the enactment of the Indian Citizenship Act (ICA), which granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States. While the significance of the ICA’s anniversary is profound, American Indian and Alaska Native communities continue to work to counter threats to their tribal sovereignty, religious and cultural freedoms, native land, and natural resources, to name just a few. Native-led and Native-serving nonprofits, including 501(c)(3) public charities (“Native charities”), play a vital role in supporting indigenous communities and advancing their critical work.

Engaging in advocacy is one powerful way for Native charities to drive positive change and amplify Native voices. However, effective advocacy not only careful planning, but attention to relevant legal regulations and guidelines.

Let’s dive into some of the impactful ways Native charities are championing these causes and navigating the complex advocacy landscape.

Non-Lobbying Advocacy

Advocacy encompasses a broad range of activities that can influence public policy, including research, public education, lobbying, and voter education. Lobbying is only one type of advocacy. As such, there are many avenues of advocacy that nonprofits can engage in that do not constitute lobbying, such as attempting to influence regulations or challenging laws via litigation. According to federal tax law, lobbying specifically refers to attempts to influence legislation. “Non-lobbying advocacy,” on the other hand, includes activities that do not involve making legislative recommendations. For Native charities, non-lobbying advocacy often involves raising awareness and educating the public on various issues affecting indigenous communities.

  • For example, in response to recent cases of students being prohibited from wearing eagle feathers at graduation ceremonies due to strict graduation dress codes, Native American Rights Fund (NARF) developed educational flyers for school districts. This information was used to advocate for students who wanted to celebrate their successes without sacrificing their tribal identities.
  • In another example, National Urban Indian Family Coalition (NUIFC), recognizing the disparity that many urban Native communities face regarding digital equity, helped to form a coalition of 15 urban Indian nonprofits across 13 states. They worked together to educate Native communities about different internet affordability options and improve people’s digital infrastructure.

Lobbying

Although the amount of permissible lobbying by 501(c)(3) public charities is subject to certain federal IRS limits, legislative lobbying remains a valuable tool for Native charities. This type of advocacy involves working directly with lawmakers to influence legislation that affects Native communities (direct lobbying), and/or mobilizing community members to take action on issues that affect them (grassroots lobbying).

  • For example, NAYA Family Center, which serves native communities in Oregon and Washington, regularly engages in city, county, and state-wide legislative campaigns. Their recent legislative priorities have included bills related to affordable housing/houselessness, economic development, health, and environmental issues in local and regional Native communities. NAYA’s advocacy efforts include one-on-one meetings with legislators and public testimony, as well as organizing a Legislative Day of Action with community members at the Washington state capitol.

For further information about the IRS federal tax rules around lobbying, please see Alliance for Justice’s resource, Public Charities Can Lobby: A Guide to Lobbying by 501(c)(3) Public Charities. It is also important to note that many states and local municipalities (in addition to the federal government) have lobbying disclosure requirements that include in the definition of lobbying communications to executive branch and administrative officials. (See State Law Resources: Nonprofit Lobbying) As such, please be aware that while this type of activity does not need to count against your organization’s lobbying limits, it may trigger lobbyist registration and reporting.

Tribal Consultation

Participating in tribal consultations is another valuable advocacy tool for Native charities. The tribal consultation process aims to ensure that tribal governments can contribute meaningfully to decision-making and provide their perspectives and concerns. Grounded in the recognition of the sovereignty of tribes and their unique government-to-government relationship with the federal government, the process is intended to uphold treaty rights and respect tribal self-determination.

It is important to note that while charities can participate in tribal consultations, their role and the extent of their participation will vary. Government agencies often have specific procedures for tribal consultations, especially when it involves federal projects or policies that affect tribal lands or interests. Likewise, tribes are sovereign nations, and they have the authority to determine who participates in consultations that affect their lands and communities. If invited, charities may participate as stakeholders or advisors, but the primary consultation will be directly between the tribe and the government. In this space, charities can play a critical role by providing support, advocacy, and expertise.

  • In 2023, for instance, the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) joined other organizations in submitting written comments to the federal Department of the Interior, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Justice to promote protection for Native children and families. Their comments included knowledge the organizations had gained from tribal leaders, community members, and their own experiences working in support of the ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act).

Since tribal consultations occur within government agencies, rather than with legislators, advocacy in this area would likely fall outside the definition of legislative lobbying under the federal tax rules and, therefore, not count towards an organization’s IRS lobbying limits. However, it is important to be aware that, as some states include communications to state administrative agencies as lobbying, advocating in the context of tribal consultations at the state-level may trigger lobbying disclosure requirements. (See State Law Resources: Nonprofit Lobbying

Voter Engagement

In addition to engaging in crucial policy advocacy, Native charities can play a significant role in building a more inclusive and equitable democracy through civic engagement. As trusted community messengers, public charities are uniquely positioned to encourage members to exercise their right to vote. Of course, like all 501(c)(3)s, Native charities must remain nonpartisan when engaging in any kind of advocacy. Specifically, they cannot endorse or oppose political candidates or parties, and violating this rule could result in loss of tax-exempt status and other legal ramifications.

  • The National Urban Indian Family Coalition’s (NUIFC) “Democracy is Indigenous” initiative is a prime example of a Native charity promoting civic engagement. Through one-on-one engagement, social media campaigns, and events, they registered over 60,000 voters in five years.
  • Recognizing that obstacles exist that impair many members of Native communities from exercising their right to vote, Native American Rights Fund (NARF) has worked with tribal councils, community members, and other stakeholders to oppose voter suppression laws that disproportionately affect Native communities. Part of these efforts include providing assistance and tools to help advocates on reservations counteract discriminatory policies that create barriers for Native people to vote.

Native charities have the power to drive transformative change in protecting and promoting the interests of American Indian and Alaska Native communities. By adhering to legal guidelines and rules governing lobbying and nonpartisanship, these organizations can spearhead policy changes and advance social justice, all while maintaining their integrity and tax-exempt status. Bolder Advocacy is here to guide you through the complexities of nonprofit advocacy and lobbying. Reach out to us by completing this form, emailing advocacy@afj.org, or calling  866-NP-LOBBY. Together, we can make a lasting difference.