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A Nonprofit's Right To Lobby

A Nonprofit's Right To LobbyTufts political science professor Jeffrey Berry has identified a major deficiency amongst nonprofit organizations -- failure to recognize their right to lobby. Medford/Somerville, Mass.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [12.08.03] With tight budgets and limited resources, many nonprofit organizations do an excellent job supporting their causes. But new research by a Tufts political science professor indicates that many nonprofits fail to take advantage of one of the most powerful tools at their disposal: lobbying.

"The leaders of the nation's nonprofits do many things well, but representing their clients' interests before government is not one of them," Tufts' Jeffrey Berry wrote in an opinion piece published in the Washington Post.

To reach this conclusion, Berry and his research team randomly selected and surveyed chief executives from more than 1,700 tax-deductible nonprofits.

"None of our data showed that charities have little interest in talking to their legislators or don't have the need to lobby," Berry wrote in an essay for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. "The underlying problem is that nonprofit organizations are excessively worried about losing their charity status."

Their study - detailed in Berry's most recent book "A Voice for Nonprofits" - suggested that the executives leading nonprofits didn't know the extent of their lobbying rights.

"When it comes to their rights to lobby, many believe they have no rights at all," Berry wrote in the newspaper. "Such views are not merely wrong, they're harmful."

The law, Berry wrote, is the primary cause of the misunderstanding. In order to maintain the ability to offer tax-deductions to their donors, nonprofits must strictly adhere to the rules outlined in Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

"There's good reason why many nonprofit leaders have trouble understanding what they can and cannot do in the public policymaking process," Berry wrote in the Post. "The law is a patchwork of confusing, contradictory and unworkable provisions."

While the law may be overly complicated, and "the political playing field [may be] unjustly and inexplicably tilted against nonprofit groups," Berry says charities shouldn't wait for the law to be rewritten.

"Nonprofit groups must change their behavior rather than wait for the law to change," he wrote in the Chronicle.

In fact, a little-known provision exists to allow groups to do just that.
"Not only can charitable nonprofits engage in more lobbying than is commonly accepted, they can lobby extensively if they take advantage of a 1976 law that the Internal Revenue Service seems to have no interest in publicizing," Berry wrote.

This 1976 law, known as the "H election," provides nonprofits with an alternative accounting mechanism that better communicates their ability to lobby without fear of an IRS audit.

But just two percent of the more than 900,000 nonprofits registered with the IRS have chosen to use this option.

"Nonprofit groups should no longer use federal law as an excuse for inaction," Berry wrote in the Chronicle. "It's legal to lobby and it's legal to lobby extensively. And lobbying is necessary because nonprofit groups must give voice to those who can't speak for themselves."

Berry says the government has a role to play as well. The IRS, for example, should make options such as the "H election" clearer.

"As government itself grows leaner, it is relying ever more heavily on nonprofits to do its work," Berry wrote to the Post. "From a standpoint of good government, the best policy would promote communication between government and its vendors"

 

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