Rules of Advocacy & Lobbying

It is easy to get hung up on what you think you cannot do in terms of engaging with your policymakers. The good news is, you can do more than you may think!

Though the law varies somewhat between what community and public foundations are allowed to do, versus what private foundations are allowed to do in terms of lobbying, all foundation-types can engage in advocacy!

Engaging on Behalf of Your Organization

Let’s start with defining advocacy. The Council on Foundations uses the term “advocacy” as an umbrella term for all types of engagement with policymakers (including elected and appointed officials and their staff) that is not specifically considered lobbying under the IRS definition (see Treasury Regulations, Section 53.4911-2 and 53.4945-2).

So what does that mean? Let’s start with lobbying. In general, lobbying is considered to be any activity that attempts to influence or expresses a view about specific legislation.

Direct Lobbying

Direct lobbying is the attempt to influence specific legislation by expressing a view on that legislation via direct communication with a Member of Congress, Congressional staff, or any other government official or employee who is involved in the policymaking process.

Grassroots Lobbying

Grassroots lobbying is the attempt to influence specific legislation via communication with any segment of the general population, where that communication encourages the recipient to take action with respect to that legislation. Community and public foundations can engage in lobbying activities, so long as it comprises an “insubstantial” amount of the organization’s total activities (which is defined rather generously by the IRS; see rules for community and public foundations). Private foundations may not engage in lobbying, except for cases of self-defense (see rules for private foundations).

If advocacy is everything except lobbying, then what is not considered lobbying? The answer is, a lot. Some activities that are not lobbying might include:

  • Sharing information about your foundation’s work. Your work impacts the lives of elected officials’ constituents. They want to hear from you about the work you are doing to improve and strengthen your shared communities.
  • Discussing broad social, economic, or other issues. Foundations possess a wide range of expertise across countless issues that impact our society and economy. You are the experts who are working to address these issues in your communities every day. Your policymakers want to hear from you about the status of these issues, and your approach to solving them.
  • Sharing a nonpartisan analysis, study, or research. Policymakers need fair and balanced information to inform their approach to drafting policies and legislation. If your foundation has commissioned or conducted a study or analysis that includes a sufficiently full and fair discussion of the facts impacting the issue, sharing this work is a permissible advocacy activity.
  • Co-hosted events, or jointly funded projects. Co-hosting a convening that brings stakeholders together from across the sector can be a valuable way to connect and innovate for solving the issues that impact your communities.
  • Engagement in regulatory affairs. Regulations are not considered specific legislation. Submitting comments on a proposed rulemaking that would impact your work is a permissible advocacy activity your foundation could engage in.
  • Self-defense communications. This type of activity is the exception to limitations on lobbying. Both public charities and private foundations are permitted to attempt to influence specific legislation that would affect your organization’s existence, tax-exempt status, powers and duties, or the deductibility of contributions to your organization.

Learn more about the ways in which your foundation can engage in advocacy.

Funding Public Charities that Lobby

All types of foundations can make grants to public charities that conduct lobbying activities—with some restrictions. See specific rules below for foundation types.

Specific Rules by Foundation Type

Learn the specific rules about what types of funding and advocacy activities your organization can and cannot do.

More Resources: