Nonprofits can lobby, too

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors |

A few eyebrows were raised 2½ years ago when United Way of Central Indiana named Andrew Cullen as its lobbyist. A few nonprofits questioned his appointment, primarily because they thought that nonprofits could not lobby.

And while in fact, nonprofits are allowed to lobby, Cindy Booth of Child Advocates believes that the perception still exists. She’s the executive director of the nonprofit that advocates for abused and neglected children in Marion County.

“I think people, boards and directors, executive directors are generally uninformed about what they can do and worry about the risk of getting in trouble. So they do nothing or they call it educating,” said Booth. Nationally last year, 280 nonprofits spent nearly $36 million lobbying, according to Open Secrets.org, which tracks the lobbying industry.

While there are specific regulations that have been around since 1934, federal tax laws allow every charitable nonprofit to engage in some legislative lobbying activities. Before 1976, IRS rules stated that 501(c) 3 organizations could lose their tax-exempt status if they did more than an “insubstantial” amount of lobbying. Sections 501(h) and 4911 of the Tax Reform Act of 1976, however, established clearer guidelines called the “lobbying‐expenditure test.”

There are, however, spending limits and technicalities that curb nonprofits from spending all of their time and money on legislative lobbying. If a nonprofit spends more than $500 on legislators or more than $1000 on state executives, the lobbyist must register, pay a fee and file reports with the Indiana Lobbying Registration Commission. Nonprofit lobbyists cannot use any organizational resources to support or oppose candidates or political parties.

Cullen said that United Way believes lobbying is part of the organization’s mission.

“I really do feel like I have one of the best jobs in the Statehouse. I get to behave like any other lobbyist, but with no self-interest to promote. My job isn’t to make some rich guy richer, my job is to help poor people get on the path to self-sufficiency. And I feel really honored to have this job,” said Cullen.

Booth said that few nonprofits ever hit the federal maximum, which is 20 percent of a nonprofits’ budget with a cap of $1 million.

So what exactly can Indiana nonprofits do?

During last year’s legislative session, United Way helped launch an effort to provide state funding for 211, a network of eight centers across Indiana that gets annual support from United Way. According to Cullen, 211 had become a victim of its own success. The public viewed it as a place to connect to services, and when the state started advertising it as a method to receive benefits, United Way and others thought it was time to educate state legislators about the service the nonprofit provides.

“In the Marion County’s 911 Center, the dispatchers have a button they push, ‘This is not a 911 problem, it’s a 211 problem, transfer, bam.’ That’s part of their training. Connect2Help 211 was happy to provide that service, but ultimately, had to recognize that if it was an essential government service, the government needed to be part of the solution and support it. It’s unfair to donors to be expected year after year to continue to fund an expansion of a government service,” he said.

In advance of the lobbying effort, 211 staff had done a cursory survey of all the funds that support human services in Indiana and determined there is about $300 million in private and philanthropic donations that support human services, and there is about $3 billion in federal, state and local funding.

“So if you’re only playing in the $300 million pool and not trying to effect change in the $3 billion dollar pool, you’re really not serving the citizens as effectively as you should. Nonprofits, in my opinion, have a better handle on the actual needs of Hoosiers, because they are the direct service providers in most cases and should be informing our government how to best spend those dollars,” said Cullen.

Part of Cullen’s work was to help 211 advocates who shared the good work the agency does and help them change the message.

“My experience around and near the legislature told me that that was not a good message. Most of what I did would be to say: ‘Stop talking about how this helps people, start talking about how this helps taxpayers.’ That’s what the legislature of today wants to hear. You know their top priority is not necessarily the old model of traditionally providing welfare services. It’s the new model of raising people out of welfare. And so it was really important that we change the messaging.

“So when we started to connect the dots and prove to the legislature that 211 connects Hoosiers to services that ultimately put them on the path to self-sufficiency, get them off their dependency on government and on the road of leading self-sufficient lives that was a winning argument,” he said.

That doesn’t mean, however, the funding was a slam dunk. While the House supported the initial legislation, the Senate asked tough questions: Was this a good system? Was it efficient? Legislators wanted facts and figures to understand why they should invest taxpayer dollars. The data provided awarded the 211 network $1 million in last year’s two-year budget.

“And it would be my expectation, and certainly my hope, that a million dollars would be the floor going forward for what the state will fund for the 211 network every year. But that being said, you know we cannot take our eye off the ball. We’re going to have to lobby for it every two years, just to make sure.”

Booth says Child Advocates has taken a bit of a different approach.

The Indiana Office of Guardian Ad Litem / Court Appointed Special Advocates, which was started in 1990, certifies and provides training and support to local GAL/CASA programs in 77 Indiana counties. The Indiana office is administered by the Indiana Supreme Court, and as a government office, its director, Leslie Dunn, cannot lobby. At the same time, Marion County’s office was incorporated as Child Advocates, Inc. and became a standalone nonprofit.

The network of programs held a CASA thank-you appreciation day in early March with state legislators. Over 300 volunteers from around the state met with their legislators and shared stories of what happens for individual kids in need of services in legislators’ districts.

“It’s very informational, it’s very one-on-one,” said Booth. “This time, we thanked them for the increase we got last year, and let them know that it wasn’t enough because even with the increase, we still have 5,000 children statewide who are on the waiting list.”

These informational sessions don’t mean there isn’t a overall plan.

“Eight years ago, we determined that we needed more funding at the statewide level, but we realized that legislators had no idea who we were. So we embarked on a relationship-making campaign and truly an educational campaign with the legislators. They had no idea what Guardian Ad Litem was and the general public confused us with Department of Child Services,” said Booth.

The first couple of years were spent talking with legislators about the nonprofit’s work on behalf of neglected and abused children. They held receptions, breakfasts and did different things to help legislators understand how the program benefits children in the child welfare system.

It culminated when Supreme Court Chief Justices Randall Shepard and Loretta Rush needed support for an increased budget for the Supreme Court, part of which would be for CASA programs. The county network enlisted all of its CASAs to talk with legislators and the legislature, and they were able to help make the case.

The network also pays attention to tracking bills that affect the work of Child Advocates/Guardian Ad Litems.

For Booth, it continues to be about building relationships. After an initial meeting with Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind., her nonprofit hosted a listening session.

“She asked me to identify a list of juvenile court judges, DCS leaders, the CASA leaders and maybe some service providers. We had about 30 people in the room in early March. She sort of let us just talk about what we were experiencing, the challenges and everything.”

Brooks’ staff took notes, and she asked good questions, Booth said.

“She listened with interest about Child Advocates and what we are doing because she had experience in the field, but she also had the interest in those topics. They talked about having a second listening session and inviting local and Congressional legislators.

“I’m not exactly sure what the follow-up is going to be with that, but I think she came away with a clearer understanding of what is happening in her district. I was quite impressed by that,” said Booth.

What is on the docket for United Way next year?

“Early childhood education. Look out. We’re coming strong in 2017. It’s going to be my biggest project in my life. It’s time that Indiana stops becoming one of only eight states in the nation that doesn’t provide early childhood education for our most vulnerable citizens. The good news is, I think, that legislators see that. I think that most policy makers are coming to that conclusion. The question is just how do we do it in the right way? How do we expand in a way that ultimately leads to the highest potential child outcomes?,” said Cullen.

If Booth were talking with other nonprofits, she suggests several reasons they should lobby — the need to have well-informed legislators in power who are educated by those on the frontlines.

“I think ultimately it benefits your program. All the legislators know is what someone has told them or what they’ve read. And they really need to hear it from someone who is in it every day. It elevates their level of understanding. And we want more well-informed legislators,” Booth said.

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