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Advocacy Tips for Nonprofits and Service Providers

February 4, 2013
By

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Advocacy should be a core responsibility for those involved with vulnerable members of our community.

Miriam Krinsky

Executive Director

Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles

In 2002, the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles (CLCLA) was doing “a good job working with one child at a time,” recalls Executive Director Miriam Krinsky, “but we kept banging our heads on the wall with the same concerns. We needed to make the system work better.”

CLCLA began using media outreach to bring attention to issues and developing relationships with policymakers, Krinsky says. They successfully lobbied in Sacramento for new laws, including one that lets foster youth stay at the same school even if they change foster families.

“Children are not a powerful constituency,” Krinsky says. “Advocacy should be a core responsibility for those involved with vulnerable members of our community. The more groups (who advocate), the easier it becomes to make our voices heard.”

CLCLA also convened education summits with county departments and schools — which now make it a priority to enroll foster youth in their educational programs. In addition, CLCLA campaigned for the Board of Supervisors to create a council to develop a plan to help foster youth do better in school.

“It’s our responsibility to reflect back (to policymakers) what we hear from families,” says Patty Siegel, executive director of the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network.

Child care providers create change

Crystal Stairs, an Los Angeles child care resource and referral agency, recently organized child care providers to push for changes to new laws restricting family child care in the city of Hawthorne. The laws would have limited families’ access to child care.

After a lawyer with Public Counsel alerted her to the issue, Sydney Kamlager-Santner, manager of public affairs at Crystal Stairs, contacted local providers and asked them to testify at city meetings. After providers testified and Public Counsel filed a lawsuit, several laws were changed.

It “was empowering for providers (to) learn what role you can play when you’re vocal,” Kamlager-Santner says.

Last year, Crystal Stairs held a federal and state budget workshop for 200 child care providers — and asked them to write their legislators. They also integrate advocacy into parenting classes.

Research studies

Some people are skeptical about advocacy by service providers — believing providers only push for more money and power.

While it is true that people who work with children and families are generally underpaid, a 2004 study of California child advocates found that money isn’t what gets them active:

  • Concern for children motivates service providers who become advocates
  • Service providers who are concerned about children are more likely to endorse letters, contact policymakers and go to rallies.

Advocacy rules for nonprofits

Some people think nonprofits aren’t allowed to advocate for change. But advocates say this isn’t true, as long as nonprofits follow the Internal Revenue Service rules for lobbying:

Vague rules for 501(c)3s: The IRS limits advocacy by nonprofits but doesn’t spell out the guidelines. It says nonprofits should have “no substantial part of the activities” go toward “propaganda” or influencing legislation — but doesn’t define these. If a nonprofit is audited, the IRS decides if it is complying on a case-by-case basis.

Becoming a 501(h): Advocates say nonprofits should add 501(h) to their nonprofit status (by filing form 5768) because there are clear lobbying rules for 501(h) nonprofits.

For 501(h) nonprofits, lobbying is defined as:

  • Direct lobbying: efforts to influence specific legislation by expressing a point of view to policymakers — and influencing public opinion on ballot initiatives.
  • Grassroots lobbying: efforts to influence public opinion about specific legislation by expressing a point of view and asking people to act on it.
  • Lobbying does not include: nonpartisan research or discussions of social issues.

501(h) nonprofits can lobby as long as they don’t spend too much on it. For example, a 501(h) nonprofit with a budget of up to $500,000 cannot spend more than 20 percent of it on lobbying—and no more than one-quarter of that 20 percent on grassroots lobbying.

Sources: “Rules of the Road” by Betsy Buchalter Adler; Alliance for Justice

Originally written by Kevin Hickey.