How Does Your Community Foundation’s Public Policy Work Stack Up?
Across the country, community foundations are recognizing the power of public policy work to advance their missions. Some do so by awarding grants for advocacy activities like public education and research. Others support nonprofits to lobby. And many others engage in advocacy themselves by taking positions on issues they care about. How many of these actions to support advocacy has your foundation taken? Tally up your score and scroll to the end for explanations.
__1. Give Grants for Lobbying. As public charities, community foundations can participate in and support lobbying. Unlike private foundations that are generally restricted from lobbying, community foundations can lobby themselves and may fund a limited amount of lobbying. Community foundations may earmark funds for lobbying; however, earmarked grants will count against the public foundation’s lobbying limit (See #3). Learn more: Community Foundations and Advocacy
__2. Remove Restrictive Language from Grant Agreements. Many foundations include unnecessarily restrictive language in grant agreement letters that prohibit their grantees from using grant funds for “any propaganda or attempt to influence legislation.” Such language is overly restrictive and may undermine the grantee’s ability to effectively and efficiently achieve its goals.
__3. Make the 501(h) Election. The 501(h) election is a straightforward way for a community foundation to measure how much it spends on lobbying itself — or on grants earmarked for lobbying. The advantage of the 501(h) election lies in the fact that it:
- Sets specific dollar limits—calculated as a percentage of a community foundation’s total exempt purpose expenditures, and
- Establishes clear definitions of lobbying.
As an added bonus, by electing 501(h), community foundations should then be able to take advantage of the guidance AFJ received from the IRS. For these reasons, the 501(h) election provides a clear picture of the amount a foundation may spend to influence legislation without losing its exempt status or incurring penalty taxes. Learn more: How to Use the 501(h) Election
__4. Support Election-Related Activities. Community foundations, like all public charities, are absolutely prohibited from engaging in activity that supports or opposes a candidate for public office. Community foundations may, however, support nonpartisan voter education activity (i.e., candidate education, get-out-the-vote, and voter registration activities). While private foundations have special restrictions for funding voter registration activities, these restrictions are not applicable to community foundations. Learn more: Community Foundation Support for Election-Related Activities
__5. Support Charitable Activities of Social Welfare Organizations and Unions. Community foundations are permitted to fund the work of nonpublic charities, including 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations and unions, if it is an activity that the foundation could participate in itself. For example, a community foundation could provide a grant to a 501(c)(4) organization to engage in nonpartisan voter registration activity but could not provide a grant to the same organization to produce a partisan voter guide because the community foundation is not allowed to support or oppose candidates for office. Learn more: Supporting the Social Welfare: Giving to 501(c)(4) Organizations
__6. Fund a Variety of Advocacy Activities. At any one time, successful advocacy efforts require one or more activities. In some cases, all of the above- mentioned activities might be utilized in a far-reaching campaign. Target audiences and the avenues used for affecting change (such as the executive, judicial, or legislative branch, or the electoral process) will vary. Factors such as public opinion, state budgets, and elections also have a great impact, requiring organizations to be flexible and open to changing strategies.
__7. Engage in Advocacy as a Foundation. Finally, community foundations can engage in advocacy themselves. For example, a community foundation could build relationships with legislators or help grantees build and sustain these relationships. A foundation could convene nonprofits and decision-makers to discuss a pressing problem (e.g., a failing school system, poverty, pollution). A foundation could write an amicus brief in a lawsuit or lobby on a particular piece of legislation or ballot measure. Learn more: Community Foundations Can Lobby