A generation ago nonprofit organizations regularly lobbied for legislation and served as advocates on issues. But according to a new survey, charities are now far more reluctant to seek to influence lawmakers and other policymakers.
The survey, conducted for Independent Sector, a membership organization of nonprofits and grant makers, found that less than one-third of nonprofits have actively advocated for policy issues or lobbied on specific legislation over the past five years, down from nearly three-quarters of nonprofits in 2000.
And even though nonprofits work on a range of issues that are affected by policy choices, such as funding for the arts and science and policies on hot-button issues like abortion and gun control, less than one-third of nonprofits said they were well-versed in how to legally conduct advocacy campaigns and how much lobbying they were permitted to do. Twenty years ago, more than half knew the rules, the survey found.
The survey, based on questionnaires completed by 2,282 charities, had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
Holding nonprofits back was a lack of money to hire full-time staff with policy expertise and fear that taking part in debates on policy matters or providing voters with nonpartisan voting guides would put their nonprofit status in jeopardy.
Nonprofits were more prone to advocate on policy questions if they belonged to national or local coalitions, according to the survey.
One of the reasons some nonprofits get the jitters about lobbying is that the rules governing how nonprofits push for policy can be complex.
The most common perception among nonprofits is that the tax code is overly complex. What trips up many nonprofits, researchers said, is the IRS guidance that nonprofits risk losing their tax-exempt status if a “substantial” amount of their activities are attempting to influence legislation.