Civic Engagement & Public Policy

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Influencing public decision-making is a critical and legal means for nonprofit organizations to accomplish their missions. Open communication between policymakers and constituents contributes to well-informed policies and their effective implementation.

To the highest extent possible, nonprofit organizations should educate their community, provide opportunities to deliberate on public policies, engage their constituents in advocacy activities, and promote community interests.

Because participation in government decision-making is a highly regulated and sometimes contentious area, nonprofit leaders need to be familiar with the regulations and requirements for nonprofit organizations to participate in policy making. They also need to know the reporting requirements and restrictions on partisan political campaign activity.

1. Nonprofits should help their clients, members, volunteers, and donors learn how relevant policies affect them, develop their skills and knowledge in public policy making, and help them take advantage of opportunities to participate in the public policy process.

2. Nonprofits should promote nonpartisan efforts to encourage voting and other participation in federal, state, county, and city policy making.

3. 501(c)(3) organizations should consider promoting awareness of elections and issues, including sponsoring nonpartisan candidate forums and legislative score cards.

4. Nonprofit boards should consider taking organizational positions on policy issues that impact the mission of the organization, its constituents, or the nonprofit sector as a whole.

5. Nonprofits should maintain a sound understanding of the current public policy environment in their activity area and how that impacts the communities they serve.

6. If engaged in public policy and advocacy activities, nonprofits should adopt a written policy that clarifies the scope of the work as well as the time and resources to be dedicated to those activities.

7. Nonprofits should join together in strategic alliances around policy issues to strengthen their impact on public policy.

8. In situations where an organization’s mission is directly affected by a public policy, nonprofits should lead advocacy efforts regarding the policy, which may involve a variety of advocacy activities including direct lobbying.

9. Lobbying by nonprofit organizations and using funds (within limits) to influence legislation is specifically authorized by federal law with mandatory reporting on IRS Form 990.  Gavel

10. Nonprofits that engage in lobbying activities are subject to state and federal lobbyist registration and reporting requirements and must file accurate and timely reports on their lobbying activities.  Gavel

11. Nonprofits that are engaged in lobbying activities must be aware of their funding sources’ limitations on the use of funds and must organize their legislative work so that only funds not restricted in this way are used for lobbying.  Gavel

12. 501(c)(3) organizations must not take positions or spend funds to support or oppose a candidate for political office or coordinate their activities with a candidate, political party, or other organization supporting or opposing political candidates.  Gavel

13. Nonprofit representatives, including board or staff members, should distinguish between their personal positions or endorsements and the nonpartisan stance of their organization. They should refrain from situations that create the appearance of any organizational endorsement for candidates or political parties.

Note to Readers: Please be aware that certain words have particular meanings in this document.

  • “Must” is used to describe practices required by state or federal law, and is noted with a gavel symbol (An icon of a red gavel); the online version of the Principles and Practices will soon include direct web links to relevant federal and state statutes and reporting forms.
  • “Should” is used to describe highly recommended practices.
  • “Constituents” describes people with a stake in the success of the organization and may include members, neighbors, clients, volunteers, and contributors.