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Nonprofits and Political Advocacy


This is part of a special series, brought to you by the Standards for Excellence Institute, to provide nonprofit leaders with a brief nonprofit governance and management tip weekly over the course of 2020. We hope these short tips will be helpful to you and the nonprofits you serve. If you have suggestions for future topics, please forward these to

It’s an election year and it’s important for nonprofits to understand what they can and can’t do when it comes to political advocacy. There is a common misconception that nonprofit organizations are legally prohibited from engaging in advocacy or lobbying activities. This is entirely untrue. Nonprofits can advocate and lobby so long as they abide by federal and state regulations. In fact, nonprofits should engage in advocacy in or to represent the interests of the people they serve and “influence public policies that affect the organization’s ability to achieve its mission.” When nonprofits do engage in lobbying and advocacy, expenditures must be disclosed, paid lobbyists or staff that engage in lobbying must be properly registered with the state and Congress if necessary, and most importantly all lobbying and advocacy activities must be nonpartisan. This means that nonprofits may not endorse or imply support for or opposition to a particular candidate or contribute in any way to a political campaign. However, there are numerous ways in which nonprofits can be active during election season, from the provision of nonpartisan study, analysis, or research to the hosting of candidate forums. It is therefore crucial that nonprofits “have a written, board-approved policy on advocacy defining the process by which the organization determines positions on specific issues.”  (Standards for Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector)


More information is available and helpful models and sample are available in the Standards for Excellence educational resource packet, Advancing the Mission through Public Policy which outlines the benefits of advocacy and the limits on and legal requirements for nonprofit lobbying. This educational resource packet and the full series of all packets  - including sample policies, tools and model procedures to help nonprofits achieve best practices in their governance and management - can be accessed by contacting a licensed Standards for Excellence replication partner, one of the over 150 Standards for Excellence Licensed Consultants, or by becoming a member of the Standards for Excellence Institute.


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About the Author: Amy Coates Madsen

Amy Coates Madsen is the Director of the Standards for Excellence Institute, a national initiative to promote the highest standards of ethics and accountability in nonprofit governance, management, and operations, and to facilitate adherence to standards by all organizations. The Standards for Excellence Institute is a program of the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations where Amy has served for more than twenty-two years. Amy is responsible for coordinating all aspects of the association’s comprehensive ethics and accountability program and efforts to replicate the program nationally. She serves as a frequent trainer and writer in the areas of board conduct, program evaluation, program replication, fundraising ethics, and nonprofit management. She has taught courses on nonprofit ethics and accountability at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies Certificate Program on Nonprofit Management. She has held positions at the Trenton lobbying firm of the Princeton Public Affairs Group, and the Public Policy Liaison Unit at the world headquarters of Catholic Relief Services. Amy received her Master of Arts in Policy Studies degree from the Johns Hopkins University – Institute for Policy Studies in Baltimore, Maryland; and her Bachelors degree from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia. Amy is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Amy serves on the Internal Revenue Service Advisory Committee on Tax Exempt and Government Entities (ACT). Amy is a former member of the Disaster Action Team of the Central Maryland Chapter of the American Red Cross and is qualified to provide disaster preparedness training to children and adults. She has also served as the former President of Central Maryland CAN TOO and was a member of the Board of Trustees of the largest United Methodist Church in Baltimore City. She serves on the board of her children’s preschool PTA and is a volunteer with the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland. Amy is currently leading an effort to establish an endowment for the Virginia Tech University Honors Program.