Last week, I went to Richmond to visit the General Assembly. (Although it made for a long day, I was able to time my visit so that I could also tour the incredible Richmond SPCA and stop by the Sorensen Alumni Reception.) If you’ve never been, I urge you to go, and see for yourself how a bill becomes law. Visit your delegate or senator, sit in on a committee meeting or watch a session from the gallery. Warning: If you’re new to politics, your first visit may be a frustrating experience. Bills move quickly and often die before they reach the floor. Rarely does anyone pay attention in committee. Points of privilege seem to take forever. Legislators carry on while their fellow “gentlemen” text and check Facebook. Bring along a buddy and it’s the perfect backdrop for MST3K. For political geeks like me, it’s fascinating place to hang out. For nonprofits, it’s a very important place: they need to be involved in the political process, but so often are not.
Be a known quantity
At the very least, your senator and delegate should know that your organization exists. Do not wait until the General Assembly is in session to make your organization known. Meet with your representatives at their home office. Invite them to visit your organization to learn more about what you do. Add them to your mailing list. Send them invitations to your events. If you do visit the General Assembly Building, stop by their office and say hello. (It’s a good reminder that they’re in Richmond working for you.) It’s important for elected officials to know your role in the community so that they can help you, and it’s important for you to be a resource that they can turn to information.
Make sure your nonprofit understands the difference between advocacy and lobbying. The IRS has restrictions for 501(c)(3) organizations. Know where the lines are before you cross them. The Center for Nonprofit Management offers an excellent overview of IRS rules regarding lobbying and advocacy by nonprofits.
You are entitled to lobby and advocate for the causes and constituents you represent. Nonprofits should get involved in the political process as it affects government funding for their programs and policies that impact their ability to carry out their mission.
Start by tracking and monitoring legislation. (As I’ve mentioned, Richmond Sunlight is the best tool for doing this.) Nonprofits have first-hand experience and expertise in their field that can play a key role in shaping public policy. For example, the Virginia Organizing Project (VOP), is on the ground in communities across the Commonwealth fighting predatory lending. Who better to rally the troops or help educate legislators than those who are dealing with this on a daily basis?
Visit the General Assembly on an “awareness day” for your cause or designate a “lobby day” for your members to meet with legislators. (Today is Lobby Day for the Charlottesville Chapter of VOP.) For those of you who’ve never participated in something like this, Richmond Sunlight offers a video with tips on how to advocate at the General Assembly.
Even if your nonprofit does not lobby for policy change, it is essential that you communicate to federal, state and local leaders the ways in which your nonprofit serves people in your community.
For more information on lobbying and advocacy, visit: