“If only the law were stronger!” is a common lament when animal cruelty occurs. Unfortunately, many people in the animal welfare movement believe that lobbying for tougher laws and stronger penalties for abusers is something that bigger groups or formal political action committees (PACs) have to do. Groups often have been led to believe that because of their non-profit status, federal laws do not allow them to lobbybut this is not true.
Non-profit organizations can spend a portion of their income to lobby legislators for and against legislation at the local, state and federal levels. In fact, small non-profit groups are currently on the frontlines of a great deal of humane work. You know what is needed, and what doesn’t work. Elected officials need to hear from you! It’s very important, however, that your group understands the rules governing lobbying because failure to adhere to them could result in the loss of your tax-exempt status.
Lobbying vs. Electioneering
Lobbying legislators for or against enactment of laws must be distinguished from overt political activity. Non-profit groups cannot be involved in endorsing candidates for office or donating funds to their political campaigns; this is electioneering and is not allowed for most normal non-profit organizations. Essentially, a non-profit can support or oppose an issue or piece of legislation, but not a candidate or political party.
For example, letters and phone calls from your group to elected officials urging adoption of anti-chaining laws constitute lobbying. Donating money from your non-profit to a legislator who sponsored an anti-chaining bill is electioneering. All political candidates know these rules and should not urge your non-profit organization to donate, nor encourage you to participate in activities endorsing their candidacy.
Please note that individuals who work for non-profit groups can act independently of their groups and donate to candidates or work for their election campaigns, as long as such activities are separated from the group.
At one time, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)’s rules on lobbying and being proactive were unclear and caused great concern. They were relatively vague, causing many groups to fear lobbying. But that changed back in 1976, when the IRS more clearly set a sliding-scale figure to allow a larger range of non-profits to be legislatively active. Groups can now choose to be involved with lobbying and, based on their income, determine the specific amount that may be spent on lobbying activities.
Any organization involved in lobbying should carefully follow IRS guidelinesthese are spelled out in IRS Publication 557 in the section on Lobbying Expenditures, which can be found on the IRS’s website. We encourage you to have your legal counsel review the requirements.
One opportunity for your group to make a substantial impact might be promoting ballot initiatives. About half of the states and the District of Columbia now allow for ballot initiatives, which is when measures are placed on the ballot to be voted on during a general election. In all states in which ballot initiatives exist, non-profit 501(c)(3) groups have the right to work for or against their passage. This is no small advantage, as major issues including Greyhound racing, farm animal care, and trapping and hunting regulations have been decided by ballot initiatives. For instance, California Proposition 2, which mandates more humane conditions for farm animals, passed by a wide margin in 2008 thanks to the lobbying efforts of both local and national animal protection groups.
On a different note, please be aware that many states regulate lobbying activities to keep ethical standards of legislators high. As a result, you or your organization may be required to register, pay a fee and make periodic reports in your state. For example, as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, the ASPCA is required to register our state legislative liaisons with certain states in which they are actively lobbying. Links to the legislative ethics and lobbying laws for the 50 states may be found here.
YES: Non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations can spend a portion of income on lobbying for the enactment or defeat of legislation.
YES: Individuals acting on their own time may help political candidates running for office. In no way should their non-profit group be involved.
YES: Non-profit 501(c)(3) groups do have the right to work for or against the passage of state-wide ballot initiatives.
NO: If you operate a non-profit organization, your group cannot be involved with working for or against the election of any political candidate.
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Lobbying: When you or your group approaches an elected official (at any level of government) to urge him or her to help enact or defeat specific legislation.
Political Activity or Electioneering: This occurs when action is taken that will help elect or defeat a new or incumbent candidate for office. Donating funds, endorsing a candidate or urging people vote a certain way for a candidate are all electioneering.
501(c)(3): Most non-profit social welfare groups, including the ASPCA, are registered with the Internal Revenue Service as 501(c)(3) groups. Groups with 501(c)(3) status are allowed to do a limited amount of lobbying, but they are not allowed to participate in political activities/electioneering. Donations to 501(c)(3)s are tax deductible, and the IRS regulates these groups.
501(c)(4): A non-profit social welfare group may engage in a wider range of political activity by registering with the IRS as a 501(c)(4). With this status, a group can do extensive lobbyingas well as endorse or oppose political candidatesbut cannot contribute funds to political candidates or parties. A 501(c)(4) can be affiliated with a 501(c)(3) group, but the funds and operations must be separated. State-level, animal-advocacy 501(c)(4)s are not uncommon, but few exist devoted exclusively to animal protection issues on the national level (one such group is the Humane Society Legislative Fund). Donations to 501(c)(4)s are not tax deductible, and the IRS regulates these groups as well.
Political Action Committees (PACs): PACs operate expressly to endorse and oppose candidates and can raise funds for the purpose of donating directly to political candidates. PACs that focus on a multitude of issues exist at both the state and national levels, and they cannot operate in cooperation with any non-profit groups. Humane USA is an example of an animal welfare PAC. All PACs must abide by Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulations, and donations to them are not tax deductible.