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Friday, December 28, 2007

'Lobbying' is Not a Dirty Word

When I travel around the country and visit animal shelters and rescue organizations, I see first-hand the fantastic work that these groups do in their communities: animal adoptions, spaying and neutering, humane education, anti-cruelty law enforcement, and much more. But when I ask if local groups are involved in lobbying efforts to protect animals, I often hear the same response: “But we’re a nonprofit charity and we’re not allowed to lobby!”

It’s a common misperception, but it’s not true. Charitable groups can and should advocate for public policy changes. Gary D. Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, says that there is a long tradition of charitable advocacy and civic participation in this country: “Nonprofit lobbyists have been involved in nearly every major public policy accomplishment in this country—from civil rights to environmental protection to health care,” he told the Washington Post. “Tens of thousands of lives have been saved by passing laws that improve car safety and reduce drunk driving.”

Animal protection groups have also made major progress through lobbying. In fact, animal shelter and rescue groups can offer resources and expertise to lawmakers, and are often the best judges of how public policies could help address problems in their communities. Would a spay and neuter bill reduce the number of unwanted pets euthanized in local shelters? Is dogfighting on the rise and are tougher penalties needed? Would restrictions on the private ownership of exotic wildlife make the community safer?

Nonprofit groups can make the case to lawmakers on these issues, but there are limits on how much lobbying they can do. Any animal protection group that is going to be involved in lobbying should consult its own attorneys and accountants. But in general, most animal protection groups are registered under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service code, meaning that the groups are tax-exempt and their donors receive a tax deduction; in exchange, the groups have to abide by rules and caps governing their advocacy work.

Any 501(c)(3) charity can advocate for or against legislation at the federal, state, or local level, but lobbying must not be a substantial part of the group’s activities or must not exceed a set expenditure cap. The group can also advocate for or against issues on the ballot, which could include gathering signatures for a ballot initiative, informing its members about the proposal, or donating directly to a ballot committee. There is a strict prohibition, however, on 501(c)(3) groups advocating for or against the election of individual lawmakers, or donating to political candidates.

The Humane Society Legislative Fund was organized as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, so it operates under different guidelines. It has no limit on its lobbying activity, and can engage in some advocacy in candidate elections. Other types of groups such as 527s and Political Action Committees follow different rules. But none of this diminishes the importance of 501(c)(3) nonprofit charities exercising their rights to advocate for legislative reforms to the extent allowable.

The Alliance for Justice offers plenty of resources for charities, foundations, and others on understanding the lobbying rules and restrictions. And once you know that you can lobby, there are other resources such as the AdVocacy Guru which can help teach you how to lobby effectively.

But keep in mind, when you hear the word “lobbying,” it’s not just Jack Abramoff and abuses of the system that should come to mind. Advocating for public policy reforms is not only allowed, it’s part of our civic duty.

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