Blog: Amplify

Rumor Has It: Dispelling Myths about Private Foundations and Advocacy

On the heels of Foundations on the Hill and many blogs on the topic, some of you may be scratching your heads asking, can a foundation really talk to legislators, educate them about the issues important to your foundation’s mission, and advocate to better position philanthropy?

The short answer is: While there are limitations, private foundations and public charities can engage in a variety of advocacy activity. Here is just a sampling:

  • Comment on regulations. For example, if your mission is affordable housing, the foundation can get involved at the regulatory level.
  • Produce or fund a nonpartisan analysis, study, or research that discusses many sides of a particular issue. If done correctly, the work may even reach a conclusion that involves a legislative solution.
  • Talk to legislators-at the federal, state, or local level-about the work your foundation does to enhance the communities you both serve.
  • Provide general support grants to public charities that advocate on your mission-related issues. While private foundations cannot earmark or designate grants for lobbying activity, a general support grant allows the grantee the flexibility to use funds where they are most needed to advance the organization’s mission.

It is true that private foundations may not engage in lobbying (as narrowly defined by Department of the Treasury regulations) but that certainly leaves a broad range of permissible activities. Public charities- including public and community foundations-have more flexibility and may even engage in a limited amount of lobbying.

Myths around foundations’ advocacy activity are persistent. If you want to learn more about what is permissible, check out our legal resources for toolkits and articles or join other private foundations on April 12 for an informational webinar on the topic. 

As always, we would love to hear how you effected change while staying within the rules. Feel free to share them in the comments!

Kelly Shipp Simone is deputy general counsel at the Council on Foundations.

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