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Pro Bono Lobbying Is a Unique Way to Give Back

By Tae Aderman | December 12, 2017

Giving Tuesday has quickly come and gone. Nonprofits use this trending pseudo-holiday to promote their missions, bring awareness to their causes, and garner charitable donations. From putting roofs over the heads of less fortunate to financing international development through micro-loans, nonprofits fill an important role. Although Giving Tuesday is only once a year, nonprofits' needs persist year round and can be surprisingly diverse.

Lobbyists are ideally positioned and well equipped to assist nonprofits and their missions through pro bono work. Typically, lobbyists should report their hours worked and note the compensation rate as $0.00, though reporting requirements may vary by jurisdiction.

A multitude of state and municipal laws affect nonprofits. For instance, some jurisdictions impose a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) on nonprofits that are otherwise exempt from state taxes. This roundabout way of imposing taxes can generate much-needed revenue for states by diverting nonprofit funds away from administrative or mission-oriented needs. Though lobbyists can lobby against the imposition or enforcement of PILOTs, PILOTs are not intrinsically bad for nonprofits because they can provide a compromise as a nonprofit seeks to expand. For instance, a nonprofit that acquires or runs taxable property may negotiate a PILOT with its municipality. Lobbyists can play a crucial role in guiding dialogue and promoting the nonprofit’s best interests.

Classification as a 501(c)(3) does not prohibit nonprofits from lobbying. Indeed, some nonprofits employ their own lobbyists. This should not dissuade outside lobbyists from initiating pro bono work because outside lobbyists and their firms can still partner with in-house lobbyists, allowing them to share resources and best practices.

A close pro bono partnership with a nonprofit can also ensure that outside lobbyists do not inadvertently endanger the nonprofit’s exempt status. Lobbyists should be aware that nonprofits cannot, by law, engage in specific political activity defined as “participating or intervening in a candidate’s campaign for local, state, or national office.” Even then, pro bono lobbying is a benefit because any such lobbying activity would not count toward a nonprofit’s lobbying compensation that must be reported to the IRS under the expenditure test.

Whether the nonprofit promotes children's welfare or its local community, lobbyists and their firms should consider pro bono opportunities as a unique and powerful way to give back. State and municipal laws are continually affecting and molding how nonprofits operate and plan for the future. Lobbyists can assist by advocating for nonprofits' best interests and in doing so, ensure that Giving Tuesday continues throughout the year.

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