Advocacy and politics: how your nonprofit can get more involved

A Guide for Nonprofits to Move into the Political Space

How can your nonprofit get more engaged in advocacy and politics?

Now is a time when many nonprofits are rethinking their goals and value, as well as engagement strategies. No matter what work you do as a nonprofit, you want to make sure you are giving real value to your community. Sometimes, that means being aggressive in advocating for change.

Many organizations see the next step as taking direct action in a community, specifically, advocacy on issues through a 501c3. Others go a step further and do more political work or advocacy work through a 501c4. Getting involved in advocacy and politics can benefit your nonprofit by building engagement and growing audiences and fundraising.

What is your organization allowed to do?

501c3 status allows your organization to do considerable communication advocacy and lobbying. A 501c4 has even more freedom to engage in advocacy on issues and lobbying. A 501c4 can also engage in politics — or “partisan intervention” in the IRS’ lingo — which a 501c3 cannot. However, no matter which category your nonprofit falls in, there are legal limits and limits self-imposed by boards and bylaws, so it’s essential to work closely with your attorney.

Advocating for community change is a core objective for many nonprofits and a good way to build an organization. Nonprofits can use a portion of their time and money for direct lobbying and advocacy and can raise money around these efforts. A straightforward option for 501c3s is nonpartisan voter turnout. A c3 can register voters, tell them where to vote, and educate folks about the process and importance of voting as long as there is not political engagement. To take partisan electoral action, you will need a separate 501c4 organization.

Why should an organization build an advocacy program or a separate political program through a 501c4?

Building advocacy or political programs can be advantageous for your nonprofit even in aspects beyond effecting change in the advocacy or political space you are moving into. Those advantages include, but are not limited to, the following.

  • Leadership development — Being more active in advocacy and politics can help your organization build real leadership and political power for the long term by building a reputation as action-takers.
  • Future planning — Having advocacy and political goals can allow you to take an active role in what your community’s future looks like. It will force you to develop specific plans and goals to grow in the long term. This should be a good thing. Don’t go into greater advocacy or 501c4 work without a plan for what you want to do.
  • Build capacity — Advocacy and political action can allow you to build greater capacity than you started with. That could be new donors, new staff, a new board, and an increased ability to get things done.
  • Real engagement — Advocacy and political action can allow you to build audiences and create grassroots and grass-tops engagement for the long term.
  • Increased fundraising — Your advocacy or political efforts can grow your fundraising by developing contact lists and reaching donors who can help fund future programs.
  • Coalition growth — A stronger focus on advocacy or politics can open the door for many potential coalition partners with similar goals you may not have considered before. Growing your coalition will strengthen your nonprofit moving forward.
  • Long term assets — Advocacy or political action can mean assets for the long term such as lists, web pages, donors, etc.

Advocacy Pit falls

Building a robust advocacy program or a separate 501c4 takes some planning and comes with its own set of challenges. Make sure you the following in mind:

  • Don’t drift from your mission — Just because you can be more active does not mean you need to move away from your core mission. 
  • Don’t chase funding — By doing issue work that won’t help your organization’s goals, you will likely drain resources and hurt your long-term mission. Make sure the work you are doing fits within your nonprofit’s goals and what your supporters expect from you.
  • Understand the risks — Advocacy and political work have legal risks. Engaging in greater advocacy or political work may be the right call for your organization, but make sure you get your team, board, and legal help together to do this in a way that moves your organization forward. You will need to plan out how to create specific goals to ensure this will be a successful effort. It is imperative you have legal guidance on building advocacy and political outreach from an attorney who understands 501c4s.

The bottom line

Advocacy and political action can help grow your organization and make a big difference if you plan and build for it. For a deeper dive, The Campaign Workshop has published a new e-book, Complete Guide to Digital Advocacy

Joe Fuld
The Campaign Workshop
Joe Fuld is the President of The Campaign Workshop, an advocacy advertising agency in Washington D.C. that provides strategy, digital advertising, content, and direct mail services to non-profit and political clients. He is the co-host of the How to Win a Campaign podcast.