So it has been established that I’m kind of militant about getting nonprofit 501(c)3 organizations to do advocacy, right? I’ve spent a lot of time talking with nonprofit leaders about the IRS rules around advocacy limits, their considerable options within those rules, and resources to help them navigate them. And, more recently, I’ve been talking with a lot of nonprofits about social media and its potential for their social change work.
Which has got me thinking about all of the unanswered questions regarding social media and nonprofit advocacy. Questions that really need to be addressed before some pioneering organization takes a risk and ends up in trouble with the IRS, which, in turn, becomes this inflated legend used as a rationale (excuse?) for many other nonprofits to shun advocacy as “too risky” or even “unlawful”.
To be sure, much of the social media/advocacy nexus falls under the rubric of online advocacy, which the Internal Revenue Service and related court decisions have already substantially addressed. But there are some areas that I view as unique and that, as of yet, I have been unable to find sufficient guidance on. If anyone is an attorney with good advice on how to interpret these areas (Alliance for Justice folks, are you reading this?) or has found a good guide that I’ve somehow missed, please share. And if you have other questions related to social media and advocacy rules, leave those in the comments, too, and I’ll do my best to track down some answers.
So 501(c)3 organizations’ allowable advocacy is divided into two “types”–direct and grassroots. Direct lobbying is anything directed at the actual change makers OR at the organizations’ members. My first question, then, is, who is a “member” within social media? Membership traditionally requires that people do something to indicate their interest in membership, and it could certainly be argued that being a fan on Facebook or following someone on Twitter meets this criteria. While, within social media, this distinction might not be as critical (because the costs associated with grassroots lobbying in social media are insignificant, making the whole accounting function not entirely relevant), it IS quite significant if these individuals are to be considered members outside of the social media context. For example, someone is a fan of your organization on Facebook, but you’re not a membership organization in the traditional sense. Can you then email or call or direct mail that individual, with a call to action on a policy issue, without it being considered grassroots lobbying, since he/she is a “member”? Or not? Given that grassroots lobbying expense caps are much easier for nonprofits to hit than the overall cap, this is not a trivial distinction.
In addition to the above, I have a question about when an organization directs a lobbying communication AT a decision maker but does so in a public forum designed, at least arguably, to bring about grassroots action. For example, I send a Tweet to an elected official but all of my Twitter followers can see it–is this direct lobbying, because it’s directed at my elected official, or grassroots, because, while it might lack the ‘call to action’ that traditionally distinguishes advocacy from non-advocacy issue education, it’s happening in a context (Twitter) where it is assumed that the goal is to get people to take action pursuant to your tweets?
The social media experts spend a lot of time talking about how organizations need to be comfortable with “losing control of the message” as they dive into social media. I agree, in principle, but the area of nonprofit advocacy rules is one where we cannot tolerate mavericks. Our (c)3 status, and our ability to continue to be strong voices on behalf of social justice, depend on understanding and following the rules.
Now we just need to know what those rules are.