visit a lawmaker to advocate
on legislation or urge people to
contact their representatives, as
long as those and other lobbying
efforts aren’t a substantial part
of their day-to-day work.
“Nonprofits are by and large
afraid of retribution from the
IRS if they lobby,” says Jeffrey
Berry, a political-science profes-
sor at Tufts University. “Many
are just misinformed, and the
ignorance remains profound.”
For their book, A Voice for
Nonprofits, Mr. Berry and his
co-author, David F. Arons, sur-
veyed 1,700 nonprofits in 1998
about their knowledge of lob-
“Businesses can call
on folks they
for policy favors.
to select local and state politicians.
So far the committee hasn’t
attracted much money. Since
last November, the political-action committee has raised about
$20,000 from roughly 45 donors,
Mr. Egger says.
“Traditionally, the nonprofit approach has been to react
to issues and then rush up the
Hill with a last-minute effort.
We don’t want to lobby people,
we want to send people into office that understand nonprofits,”
Mr. Egger says.
“There are 10 million non-
profit employees in the United
States. If everyone gave a buck,
imagine how many people we
could elect that we didn’t have
bying and found that most did
not fully understand the federal
laws that govern nonprofit lob-
Lacking a United View
It’s not just money or other
obstacles that hobble nonprofit
advocacy. Nonprofits often lack
a united view on public-policy
matters, and that makes them
unlikely to work together to
push a particular view.
For example, some people in
the nonprofit world are glad
President Obama is seeking to
limit write-offs for wealthy donors, saying that the current
system favors charities with
“The charitable deduction
is not as important to a lot of
nonprofits that get government
funding or get small donations,”
notes Mr. Smith, the University of Washington scholar. “It’s
certainly not central in the way
that the mortgage-interest deduction is to the real-estate industry.”
Waiting for Big Issues
Money is indeed a very real
challenge in nonprofit lobbying,
says Alan J. Abramson, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.
“Businesses can call on folks
they supported in past election
cycles for policy favors,” he says.
Some nonprofit umbrella
groups have worked to find ways
to move more money toward lob-
The National Committee for
Responsive Philanthropy started Philanthropy’s Promise last
year, a campaign asking grant
makers to commit to devoting at
least 25 percent of their grants
each year to advocacy.
Robert Egger, president of the
D.C. Central Kitchen, a social-service group in Washington,
created CForward last year, an
advocacy group under Section
501(c)( 4) of the tax code, which
allows it to endorse candidates.
He also established CFor-wardPAC, a political-action
committee created to raise
money from nonprofit employees, volunteers, and others to
provide campaign contributions
Some observers hope nonprofits will do more to form a united front focused on preserving
and expanding federal spending
that benefits all nonprofit organizations, arguing that such direct support is more important
than the subsidies that non-profit groups get through charity write-offs.
“Government support of nonprofits is two-thirds more important than private giving,”
says Mr. Abramson, of George
“I haven’t seen us make much
of a dent in figuring out how the
sector can come together and
lobby on the spending side of
the budget,” he says.
Mr. Abramson says nonprofits
could look at federal budget proposals, calculate the “nonprofit
budget,” and lobby Congress
for more spending that benefits
nonprofit groups, rather than
just seeking to protect a specific
cause, like education or health
“A lot of times nonprofits
are just playing defense and
have real trouble developing a
proactive policy agenda,” Mr.
“Meanwhile, “ he says, “other
industries have a five-point policy platform that may take 10
years to get enacted, but they
chip away at it year by year.”