Lobbying: Nonprofits need to do more of it

When I tell people that I am a registered lobbyist with the State of Michigan, they kinda look at me funny because I don’t fit their stereotype of a lobbyist. Then they tell me that lobbyists are the ones really making the decisions up in Lansing. So I am here to dispel both myths: first that lobbyists do not and should not fit a stereotype and secondly they are not the ones pushing the green or red button in the House and Senate chambers and are definitely not the ones signing bills into laws.

And after I explain this all and some additional items, I am going to lobby all of you budding nonprofit young professionals to advocate in the legislature for your clients and constituencies. But you also have to ask something of them. Your clients and supporters need to vote and contact their electeds.

Having the right to and actually lobbying your elected officials and government and voting are the two founding principles of American democracy and our civic duty.

Lobbying gets a bad rap because the interests with deep pockets hire a whole lot of lobbyists to educate and then work with legislative aides on crafting legislation that is beneficial to them. However, I am here to say that it is possible to be a one person shop with very limited resources and lobby elected officials.

Here is Michigan the legislators cannot serve more than 6yrs in the House and 8 years in the Senate. This means it is a continual “rotation of amateurs” (to quote Gordon Wood in a NY Times article) that know very little about very little. But many of them want to learn about what is important to their constituents and for the state and what role than can play to advance those interests.

I’m not talking about insurance companies or banks, I am talking about what the local food bank needs to provide the increasing number of families that need its help or the social service org. that needs more resources. Legislators need to hear from these organizations, instead of the organizations complaining to each other in their own silos, because, now when MI is facing such a huge budget shortfall, resources are scarce and those who do the most lobbying are going to see the smallest cuts.

I know there is huge concern about losing your 501(c)(3) nonprofit status however, the IRS allows an organization to spend 20% of its first $500,000 of an org’s annual budget to advocate. That is $100,000!!!! Also, it is not difficult for a (c)(3) to have a sister (c)(4) organization that gives it more flexibility to lobby. If you want more information on the rules for nonprofit lobbying, go to the Alliance for Justice for more indepth information and always consult a lawyer! The Michigan Nonprofit Association also is a wealth of resources on this subject.

Back to my point, when nonprofits are shouldering more and more of services that traditionally were provided by government and the increasing interest in public-private partnerships, it is more important than ever to make your voice heard to legislators and to those in the executive branch as well. Here is an example of this:

The ARRA money (aka Stimulus Plan) that came from the federal government to MI for energy efficiency and weatherization. The money needed to be appropriated by the Legislature to a government agency. Once appropriated, the agency, needed to draft up rules and regulations on how the money was to be dispersed and spent. The agency then submits the rules and regs. for public comment. And after adjusting the rules and regs from feedback it received during public comment period, then the agency could put out an RFP and disperse the money.

In this scenario, I count 3 different times an org that is seeking the ARRA money for its constituency could positively affect its chances of receiving the moeny. It needed to lobby the legislature to appropriate the money and change any MI laws that was required by the ARRA. Then it needed to talk to the agency and work with them on drafting rules and regs and finally during public comment. By doing this advocacy work, the org. greatly increases its chances of getting the resources it needs.

I know lobbying may seem scary, so I recommend you check out the resources the Michigan Nonprofit Association and the Alliance for Justice has on advocacy to ensure your org. is both effective and legit. Lastly, if you are still not convinced, many foundations are pushing their grantees to lobby and advocate for their clients.

– Posted by Christina Kuo

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