Many people incorrectly assume that non-profit organizations are prohibited from lobbying. Federal laws do not prohibit a non-profit organization from lobbying but they do limit the amount of lobbying that is permitted to certain specified limits. Additionally, the laws make a clear distinction between direct lobbying and grassroots lobbying and impose different limitations on each of these types of lobbying.
In general, direct lobbying is defined as any attempt to influence any legislation through communication with a legislator, an employee of a legislative body or other government official, which either refers to specific legislation or reflects a view on specific legislation.
Example: I support H.R. 1234…
Grassroots lobbying Is defined as any attempt to influence any legislation through an attempt to affect the opinions of the general public or any segment thereof. A grassroots lobbying communication is one which:
- refers to specific legislation
- reflects a view on that legislation
- encourages the recipient to take action with respect to the legislation, by any of the following:
- directly urging the recipient to contact legislators or other government officials in order to influence legislation
- including the address, phone number or similar information about a legislator or government official
- providing a petition, postcard or other prepared message to send to a legislator or government official in order to influence legislation
- identifying one or more legislators who will vote on the legislation as opposing the organization's view; being undecided; being the recipient's representative in the legislature; or being a member of the legislative committee that will consider the legislation. Encouraging the recipient to take action does not include naming the main sponsor(s) for the purposes of identifying the legislation.
Example: Please call Rep. X and ask them to support H.R. 1234…
What are the Lobbying Limits?
Publicly supported 501(c)(3) organizations, such as the American Forest Foundation (AFF, the parent organization of the American Tree Farm System), may devote no more than an “insubstantial” portion of its activities to lobbying. AFF has filed what is known as a 501(h) Election which defines “insubstantial” by means of an expenditure test. This test sets clear limits on how much AFF can spend for lobbying, based on how much AFF spends on its other exempt-purpose expenditures.
Total lobbying expenditures may not exceed $1 million/year and no more than 25% of an organization’s total allowable lobbying expenditures may be spent on grassroots efforts.
In addition to more clearly defining the limits that may be spent on lobbying, the 501(h) election clarifies that only expenditures made by AFF are subject to the test. This is very important because lobbying done by volunteers that do not spend AFF money is not included in these calculations.
While AFF is permitted to lobby, there are several activities in which AFF, as a 501(c)(3) organization is expressly prohibited from engaging in at any time. These activities include:
- Intervening in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office
- Engaging in partisan activity of any kind3) Using government funds or contracts to lobby
While AFF does have to make various efforts to ensure compliance with these laws, the benefits that our members receive from our activities far outweigh the work that we as staff do to ensure compliance.
Special Election Year Activities
As mentioned above, AFF cannot endorse or oppose political candidates nor mobilize supporters to elect or defeat specific candidates. In addition, AFF cannot align with a specific political party or contribute funds to specific political parties. However, there are a few things AFF CAN do in an election year:
- Educate voters about important issues, thus possibly influencing a campaign’s issues.
- Non-partisan voter registration—We can register voters and urge them to vote.
- Engage candidates in forums and surveys/questionnaires.