We Can All Advocate (and Many of Us Can Support Lobbying)

As we begin a year in which a federal election will take place, we at Grantmakers in the Arts would like to encourage all of us to advocate for our field, our artists, our communities, this year and every year.

Advocacy is the act of informing the public and government officials – including elected legislators, appointed executives, and hired government workers – about an issue. This can include educating public officials about the beneficial effects public support for the arts has had on the constituents and the communities they represent.

I want to be very clear about this, as apprehensions often arise when the subject of advocacy is mentioned in funder communities. Foundations and public agencies can support advocacy. Nonprofits, public agencies, and foundations can engage in advocacy. GIA maintains we should all be advocates always.

Now, lobbying on the other hand, which is slightly different than advocacy, often frightens people to the point of paralysis. A lawyer I used to work with once said to me, “My job is to manage risk. And, the least risky thing is the thing that never happens.” In contrast, my predecessor Janet Brown used to say, “Philanthropy is a field born out of love and administered out of fear.” And fear tends to fester in those dark places where knowledge does not live.

Far more of us can engage in or support lobbying than we often realize. Nonprofits can lobby and foundations can support lobbying. Let me explain.

  • Foundations themselves CANNOT lobby, with the exception of community foundations. But, foundations CAN support lobbying.
  • Foundations CAN support nonprofits’ lobbying through general operating support as long as none of their funds are earmarked for lobbying.
  • Foundations CAN support nonprofits’ lobbying through project grants for projects that include lobbying as long as none of the grant is earmarked for lobbying.
  • Foundations CANNOT say, “Here’s your lobbying money.” Foundations CAN say, “Here’s your grant and we recognize that some of it will be used for lobbying.”

Many of us avoid advocacy for fear that it will shade into lobbying; however, they are actually two separate things. What is lobbying?

Advocacy is focused exclusively on raising awareness of issues and the impacts of approaches, while lobbying seeks more targeted influence. Grassroots lobbying is the action of informing the public about an issue and asking them to take direct action, vote for a certain bill, for instance. Direct lobbying is the action of speaking to a government official with an express ask to take direct action such as voting for a certain bill.

The difference between the two can be identified by asking, “Is there a discrete piece of legislation under discussion? Am I encouraging someone to vote for or against that legislation?” If the answer is no, then you are advocating. If the answer is yes, you are lobbying.

Nonprofits can engage in both grassroots and direct lobbying as long as it is not a substantial part of their work. There are general IRS guidelines about what counts as substantial based on budget size and amount of work. You can see them here and here. A simplified rule of thumb is that a nonprofit’s lobbying should remain under 5-percent of their work and under 20-percent of their expenses. Again, this is a simplified rule of thumb.

So, what can’t grantmakers or nonprofits do? Under no circumstances can any nonprofit or foundation issue a call to action for anyone to vote for a certain candidate or political party. That’s it.

As 2020 ramps up, please advocate often and enthusiastically! And, let’s commit to educating ourselves and our colleagues about lobbying. Our field, our artists, and our communities rely upon it.