As a young nonprofit employee, I witnessed when the change happened. Nonprofits stopped believing they could be politically active.

Since the 1970s there has been a gag order in effect on nonprofits, especially small ones without the benefit of legal advice. Many members of nonprofits, even leaders, are under the impression that they must not perform any act that might influence the political process or public policy upon threat of losing their nonprofit status. From stifling discussion about candidates or legislation in meetings, to not talking with political leaders about our concerns, to avoiding talk about public policy, nonprofits have been stifling themselves and limiting their ability to affect change that ameliorates the problems they were organized to address.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Nonprofits are not banned from the political sphere, although there are some restrictions. They must not endorse a candidate, for instance. Well, actually, that’s about it. At least not as an organization: though its members can obviously work for the election of a candidate as private citizens. And who’s to say individuals can’t network with each other for discussing and selecting the best candidate to support or coordinating their efforts. (Hint, hint. How about a meet up group instead of a chapter meeting?)

So, what can we do as an organization? The designation of 501(c)(3) gives us the right to lobby up to a percentage of our budget and personnel activity. However, the percentage is not well defined, which may put you off, as it will be up to the IRS to determine whether we overdid it after the fact. I believe that is what has worried most – especially small – nonprofits, putting the kibosh on any political speech, much less public education advocating any action or policy ideas.

But there is another piece of the legislation that helps with that issue: 501(h). It is a half-page application, Form 5768, for establishing the limits of expenditures for lobbying. A nonprofit the size of the Native Plant Society of Texas, of which I was state president, will have an expenditure limit of 20% of our total budget. That means we can influence legislation, write or respond to ballot measures, and more. That’s pretty generous, actually. We are leaving an important strategy on the table by not using this allowance. Once we implement that, it then requires that we keep track of our monetary expenditures and volunteer and paid personnel lobbying activities. Determining the monetary hourly value of volunteer activities has already been done for us by Independent Sector.

Lobbying to influence legislation is defined by the IRS as when an organization “contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation. Organizations may, however, involve themselves in issues of public policy without the activity being considered as lobbying. For example, organizations may conduct educational meetings, prepare and distribute educational materials, or otherwise consider public policy issues in an educational manner without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.” Learn more about this here.

There is a lot we can do without labeling it “lobbying.” And now we know that we can be involved in influencing legislation, particularly environmental legislation. Got any ideas? I’ve been considering and reading up on this. There is such a wide range of actions people can take that fits different personalities and gifts. Much can be done easily, I believe, and certainly individually. I only would say that we will be more effective if we organize ourselves around chosen priorities.

I will provide a list here, some of which you might like. Maybe it will inspire some ideas of your own. With change happening so rapidly now, passive educational activities, wonderful as they are, really need to be enhanced with more assertive action.

Possible activist strategies:

  • Talk to and educate the staff of elected officials.
  • Educate candidates about the issues.
  • Host debates or forums.
  • Attend meetings regularly of a regulatory board.
  • Write elected officials substantial letters to let them know you are watching their performance. Nothing gets their attention like a written letter that engages the mind and allows for careful consideration of the information and ideas.
  • Send messages to officials via email or social media.
  • Attend their public meetings and bring up your concerns.
  • Praise them whenever possible for wise decisions related to your cause and explain scientifically why that is so important.
  • Start an action group to coordinate local and statewide efforts.
  • Create a climate change or environmental action plan.
  • Plan a strategy to support land reform that protects habitats.
  • Create arguments for preserving nature that appeal to pocketbooks, patriotism, etc., for use by members and chapters.
  • Help to write legislation or write a suggested legislative bill and promote it.
  • Feature stories of environmental activists in your chapter (and state) newsletter to encourage others to follow suit.
  • Lionize the work of activists before the public.
  • Create radio and TV spots.
  • Partner formally with other environmental groups to increase your effectiveness and spread the “costs” reportable to the IRS among several organizations.
  • Support public art projects that inspire environmental stewardship.
  • Boycott or patronize businesses to discourage or encourage behavior, and let them know why.
  • Subvert commonly held attitudes and beliefs that themselves subvert efforts to save the environment. You can probably think of something as you’re reading this. First thing that comes up for me is people cursing the leaves that fall from trees. Some of those trees get cut down for that reason.
  • Disseminate memes on Facebook; create a Twitter account. See Culture Jamming in Wikipedia for ideas.

This is just a scattershot of ideas, and some may not be appealing. There also is individual action, perhaps coordinated for greater effectiveness by an informal group.

Coordination, getting informed about issues, and outreach. We’re doing a lot of this already. Now we can do it louder.

To learn more, go to the Bolder Advocacy website, which in its own words “promotes active engagement [and works] to demystify and decode advocacy by equipping organizations with knowledge and tools.”

Melissa Miller

Melissa Miller is past president of the San Antonio chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas and served as state president. She is co-founder of the Native Landscape Certification Program taught around...