Nonprofits learn to rely on lobbying

Once-shunned step increasingly seen as legitimate tactic

Groups observe impact

Many charities err in assumption that practice is illegal

July 23, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

As nonprofit organizations take over more governmental services, they're taking on another job commonly associated with government: lobbying.

While laws generally prohibit so-called "public charities" from being overly political, groups are springing up to show organizations how to advocate within the limits of the law.

Heightened interest in effective advocacy has spawned a host of nonprofit coalitions and mergers. In Maryland, one example is the new Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, a coalition of business, nonprofit, religious and labor groups seeking to reduce the role of private insurance companies and to simplify the payment system for health care.

Using the inexpensive and far-reaching power of the Internet, organizations are publishing vote totals on sensitive bills, "report cards" of representatives' records on issues, and "action alerts" with instant e-mail links to elected officials. Locally, umbrella groups including the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations and the Association of Baltimore-Area Grantmakers have been holding training sessions on how to lobby.

Many charities assume they're not allowed to lobby at all, said Bob Smucker, co-director of Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest, a project begun two years ago to encourage lobbying among nonprofits.

"Charities tend to think of their best service as hands-on service delivery, but you could make a good, solid case that the best service is making sure government carries out its responsibilities," Smucker said.

"Lobbying is still considered a dirty word by many people. Some people think it's just not nice to do, that charities shouldn't be involved in that tawdry business."

Public charities, known as 501(c)(3) organizations in the tax code, must follow the strictest rules for political activity of tax-exempt groups. They're allowed to lobby on particular pieces of legislation as long as that activity makes up "no substantial part" of the group's operations. Some charities have chosen to classify themselves under a different law, which allows them to devote 20 percent of their annual expenditures to lobbying, with a $1 million cap.

The benefits of nonprofit lobbying include more money and better programs for the disadvantaged people that nonprofits often serve. Much of the latest interest in advocacy has to do with the 1996 federal welfare reform law, which has pushed thousands of families off the government rolls and into the arms of food pantries, job-training programs and day-care providers.

A recent Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations survey found that 91 percent of respondents believed it was important for charities to advocate on behalf of their mission.

But there are negatives, too, such as the prospect of alienating corporate or government funders who are on the "wrong" side of an issue - and whose lobbying pockets are far deeper.

For those reasons, many nonprofits are still hesitant. Internal Revenue Service statistics show that of the 228,011 501(c)(3) organizations that filed Form 990 tax returns in 1998, only 1.5 percent reported any "legislative" expenses, the category for lobbying. That percentage was about the same in 1996 and 1997.

But some nonprofits are finding ways to become more vocal. Lobbying power was a key factor in the merger several years ago of the Maryland Food Committee and Action for the Homeless into the Center for Poverty Solutions.

Last year, for the first time, the center listed the voting records of every member of the Maryland General Assembly on such issues as the expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program and putting aside state money for social services in case of recession.

Lists such as those - once published only by business groups or watchdog organizations such as Common Cause - are noticed, said state Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Baltimore Democrat.

"I think [nonprofits] are much more prominent down in the General Assembly than they have been in the past, on a variety of issues," Montague said. "They didn't give us very good grades down there this year for things we did."

He said that while nonprofits still have less money and fewer people to throw at their lobbying efforts, officials are listening to them more carefully.

"What used to happen is a lot of times the nonprofits were given the back of the hand by government," he said. "What I see now is the government seems much more willing to engage them in discussions."

Charities also have learned to align their efforts with those of other kinds of nonprofits that are freer to lobby and even to endorse candidates - organizations such as labor and professional associations.

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