The Miserable Have No Other Medicine, But Only Hope…And Legislative Lobbying Action

With all the discussions intersecting arts advocacy and political action, it’s worth taking a closer look at the sort of lobbying activities 501(c)(3) nonprofits can participate.

And since we’re talking about a topic that clearly crosses the threshold into legal waters, let’s be clear that the information provided here is not legal advice. The purpose of this post is to examine the topic and inspire consideration. You should always consult with an attorney who specializes in these areas before taking action.

For some backstory, a reader posted a comment to an ArtsHacker article about advocacy in the wake recently proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) pointing out the very straightforward rules related to nonprofit 501(c)(3) and lobbying.

In a nutshell, it’s not allowed.

Adaptistration People 088Consequently, advocacy efforts would seem to be limited when viewed exclusively by that set of criteria.

Having said that, we are talking about the Internal Revenue Service and rules are often accompanied by one or more provisos. In this instance, the 501(h) election provides a way for charitable nonprofits to implement limited legislative lobbying efforts.

One of the most useful resources you can find to begin learning more on this topic is the National Council of Nonprofits. They maintain an excellent page dedicated to this issue explaining what the 501(h) election is, legal resources, user-friendly examples, and related considerations.

I strongly recommend reading that full article then examine the 2013 IRS 990 from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

This is an excellent example of a 501(c)(3) using the 501(h) election and reporting it accordingly. In particular, you’ll want to note the following items:

  • They indicate an affirmative to Part IV, Question 4.
  • They complete all related information in Schedule C, Political Campaign and Lobbying Activities

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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