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No Slime, Grime or Jail Time: The Truth About Nonprofit Lobbying

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

Hey, I’ll be honest.

I may have jumped the gun in my last blog post.

I was so focused on dispelling that ugly "nonprofits can’t lobby” myth that I missed a good opportunity to answer a really simple but incredibly important question that many nonprofits have about lobbying...

What the heck is lobbying?

“Oh, we know!” some say.

“It involves bribery, right? A lot of blackmail? A little collusion?

The kind of shady, illegal, under the table type stuff that would make Frank Underwood proud, right?”


And you people watched way too much House of Cards back in the day. 😀

There are so many negative perceptions about lobbying.

So let me take the opportunity to define it and to do some myth busting while I’m at it.

What is Lobbying Really?

Let's start with a clear, simple definition:

Lobbying is the attempt to influence a legislator or public official to introduce, support, or oppose a specific piece of legislation.

Here are some examples:

  • Meeting with a legislator to ask the legislator to introduce a bill expanding the definition of “child abuse” to include abuse committed by those other than biological parents

  • Writing a letter to a legislator to ask the legislator to oppose a bill that increases taxes on small businesses

  • Asking your grassroots supporters to contact their legislator, urging the legislator to support a bill requiring police officers to wear body cameras

All of these activities are lobbying because they involve direct communication with a legislator to influence his or her decision to introduce, support or oppose specific legislation which, in most cases, is a bill introduced in a state or federal legislature.

Note though that lobbying also includes direct communication to local officials, which means that the "specific legislation" is a local ordinance.

Even a proposed ballot initiative, referendum, or constitutional amendment is considered "specific legislation," in which case, the "legislative body" you would be lobbying would be the general public (and first the legislature depending on the state).

The Other "L-word" - Legislative Advocacy

Now, it’s important to note that not every activity you do to influence public policy is considered lobbying.

Actually, most public policy advocacy activities fall under another “L-phrase” that’s not nearly as scary – legislative advocacy.

It’s a broader term that includes lobbying but also includes activities that attempt to influence policy without attempting to directly persuade legislators.

Here are some examples:

  • Informing the general public about the prevalence of human trafficking and about legislation introduced to address it

  • Writing a publication that explores all sides of the minimum wage debate and suggests federal legislation as a solution

  • Informing a legislator of how current environmental policies are harming wildlife

These are examples of legislative advocacy because they involve educating the public and legislators about the impact of current policy and about the need for changes.

But they are not lobbying because they are not attempting to influence a legislator to vote for or against a specific policy.

Administrative Advocacy

I also want to briefly mention an often-overlooked form of advocacy that doesn’t involve changing laws.

Instead, it involves changing agency regulations, rules established by administrative agenicies to implement the laws passed by the legislature.

It’s called - you guessed it – administrative advocacy.

I’ll talk more about administrative advocacy later. But for our purposes here, just know that attempting to change or give input on an agency rule or regulation is not considered lobbying.


Because agency regulations are not considered legislation.

Remember, lobbying involves communication regarding a specific piece of legislation, not an agency regulation.

A Little Review

So, here’s a quick recap.

  • Lobbying is the attempt to influence a legislator or public official to support or oppose specific legislation.

  • Legislative advocacy includes lobbying but also includes activities that educate the public and legislators about the impact of current policies.

  • An attempt to influence an agency regulation (administrative advocacy) is not lobbying because agency regulations are not considered legislation.

Got it?


Not All Legislators Are Frank Underwoods

So that’s it, folks. That’s my little primer on lobbying.

No slime, grime, or jail time involved (usually).

I don’t want to come off as naïve, though.

I get why lobbying gets a bad rap.

Most commonly, it's because of the perception that there's a thin line between lobbying and bribery.

Lobbying is usually associated with large special interest groups that donate to a legislator's election campaign (or provide other perks) in exchange for the legislator's support of favorable legislation.

Isn't that just "legal bribery"?

Well...the public consensus is yes.

Yes it is.

And it definitely happens.

But most lobbyists are ethical, actively avoiding any appearance of a "quid pro quo" relationship with legislators.

Their primary role is be a reliable source of knowledge and expertise to legislators and serve as valuable liaisons between legislators and their constituents, especially those with interests that are traditionally underrepresented.

Even better news is that to the extent that legal bribery does exists, you don't have to engage in it.

In fact, you can't.

Because the tax code prohibits 501(c)(3)s from donating to political campaigns (and from engaging in any other type of support for political candidates).

You could lose your tax-exempt status if you do.

So where does that leave you in the big money politics game?

It leaves you in the hands of legislators who truly care about the little guys.

Legislators willing to take up nonprofit causes, regardless of their inability to contribute to their reelection campaign.

Legislators who are ethical, honest, compassionate, true public servants who aim to serve and protect their constituents.

Contrary to popular belief, they exist (and you don't need a to start a 501(c)(4) to get their attention. 😉)

They’re the ones who introduce the policies that will make the change you want to see.

I promise you, most legislators are not Frank Underwoods.


As usual, feel free to shoot me an email if you need any guidance on what activities are lobbying and which are not or if you need help convincing your organization that lobbying is actually a good thing.

I'll talk to you soon!

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