18 Mar NONPROFITS, HERE’S HOW YOU CAN TAKE A POLITICAL STANCE
Any and every nonprofit can take a stance on the issues that matter to our community.
We hear a lot of questions from nonprofits about what they are allowed to do. As a 501(c)3, you have a right to support policy initiatives and influence legislation. (See a breakdown of the federal law from the Council of Nonprofits.) Now that the Florida legislature is in session, there are issues you may want to weigh in on.
The nonprofit toolbox
In its simplest form, advocacy means making the case for your mission. More broadly, advocacy can include any number of nonpartisan activities from public education outreach to policy research, position papers and voter engagement. Lobbying, on the other hand, refers specifically to advocacy efforts that attempt to influence legislation. While there are restrictions on lobbying, there’s more leeway on advocacy activities. (See a primer on lobbying do’s and don’ts from Bolder Advocacy.)
Knowledge is power.
At its core, every nonprofit has a mission. Whether that’s to create onramps to education, make healthcare accessible or ensure people have an affordable place to live. Nonprofits help represent the community and are often the experts on the issues and impacts. Policymakers want to hear from you about their community, the issues people face and your approach to solving them. If your organization has conducted research on a topic, sharing your findings is a permissible advocacy activity. While we’re at it, it’s also okay to educate candidates – and voters – on these issues. (See guidelines on lobbying from Council on Foundations.)
Using your voice.
While a 501(c)3 cannot endorse a candidate, nonprofits can take a position on a ballot measure, state constitutional amendment, referendum or any other policy put to a direct vote to the public. At The Miami Foundation, we champion parks as essential to healthy communities. When we heard about the city of Doral referendum asking residents to vote on a measure that would fund a $150 million bond for major renovations at city parks, we saw an opportunity to lend our voice. Cities are not permitted to advocate support to advance the policy measure, so we took a clear position of support and launched a communications campaign to help spread the word to voters in the city of Doral about what the referendum would mean to them. It worked, reaching more than half of likely voters. The funds collected from this bond will now go toward building out Doral Central Park, adding a dog park, tennis and volleyball courts, playgrounds and a community center.
Hold decision makers accountable.
One way to hold our leaders is accountable is to educate the public about the issues that affect them so they know what they’re voting on in the ballot box – and how to ensure leaders follow through. You can support voter registration, get-out-the-vote efforts or issue education, so long as it’s not directly tied to an endorsement of a specific candidate. You can create candidate questionnaires and voter guides as well as distribute voting records or legislative scorecards.
Nonprofits engaging in policy advocacy and activism is critical to making lasting change and fulfilling their missions. We made a big bet on the city of Doral and it paid off in a compounding way. Educated residents voted to invest in local parks that improve quality of life and community by approving the referendum.
If you’re a nonprofit leader who’s interested but not sure how to start, Bolder Advocacy is a helpful first stop. It’s an organization that offers free tools to nonprofits to shape the debate on public issues.
It’s not just nonprofits who can weigh in on an issue. Individuals can get involved and advocate for a cause that’s important to you, too. You can start by getting to know your state and local leaders. Find your state and U.S. senators and representatives at flsenate.gov.
And, now that we’ve got a knack for this policy stuff, we’re looking for our next initiative. We’d love to hear about the causes you’re championing. Let us know and we might just double down on it.
Dawn Shirreffs is director of public affairs for The Miami Foundation.